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.

 

Sermon: The Gift of Getting Lost

Date: March 26, 2017

 

Text – Psalm 42, 1 Samuel 3:6-9

 

 

In 2005, it was Thanksgiving week. Most of my friends were planning to go home – Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New Jersey. I thought that I had to go somewhere too. I was tired from all the exams and readings for the seminary. So, I decided to visit my uncle and aunt in Baltimore. Since I did not have a car, I got a rental one. I had never driven in the U.S. so I printed out all the directions from the Map Quest. As I started to drive from Boston, the Map Quest was the only guide I had on my hand. I passed I-90 successfully. I switched to I-84 successfully. I then switched to I-91 successfully in Hartford. But the trouble came as I was passing through the New York City. I though that I was going my way with confidence but I ended up somewhere in Bronx. I did not have any GPS that could easily tell me, “Turn left. Make a U-Turn.” I was pulling my hair in the middle of nowhere.

Our life could be like that sometimes. We thought that we knew where we were going with our life. We figured out what we would do with our works. We invested in our time and life for it but later discover that we are not happy about it. We feel lost regarding why we need to go back to the work the next day. We fall in love with someone, marry the person, and expect our marriage to last till the death asunder. And someday, we discover that our spouse is somehow not happy about our marriage. We feel lost about how to fix our marriage and restore our love. We thought that our value and view are the only legitimate ones but one day wake to a new reality that the world is not the same as yesterday. We feel lost about defining our new role and how to make sense of the world.

If we had a GPS for our lives, we might find our lives a little easier to live in our dramatically changing world. A GPS that says, “Turn left. Turn right. Make a U-Turn.” I think that we Christians, at least, wonder, “What is God saying to us? How can we discern the voice of God?” When we go through unexplainable sufferings or tribulations, we look up to the sky and ask, “Are you really there?” We wish that God would speak to us directly revealing the will of God in audible voices loud and clear. I am sure that there could be some of you here who have heard the audible voice of God. But I think that most of us do not as if the parents tell their children that it is tie to go to bed. Wash your face and brush your teeth. I will read you some bedtime stories. And the question is, “Does God speak to us at all?” Or “Are we actually missing what God is saying to us?”

In Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elens describes what happens to Bruce in the movie Bruce Almighty. After being fired from his job as a television weatherman, Bruce is looking for a sign from God desperately. He is driving down the highway one night and anxiously prays, “Ok, God, you want me to talk to you? Then talk back. Tell me what’s going on. What should I do? Give me a signal.” Then he passes a road construction sign flashing the words, “Caution ahead.” He does not recognize the message but continues to pray, “I need your guidance, Lord, please send me a sign!” A truck full of construction signs suddenly pulls in front of him that say, “Stop” “Wrong Way.” He still misses the sign and says, “Ah, what’s this joker doing now?” Finally, Bruce’s pager rings. He takes the pager off its holster and checks the number. Little does he know but it’s God paging him. “Sorry, don’t know ya.”

The video clip of Bruce constantly missing the sign from God seems insightful to us as we also reflect on the times when we feel lost. When we were lost in our spiritual journey, did God never communicate with us? Or was it that we kept missing the sign from God? Maybe we were preoccupied with the way we thought that God should answer to us with particular answers or particular ways. How about the story of Samuel and Eli from 1 King today? Samuel was a young boy serving the temple priest, Eli in Jerusalem. At night, Samuel hears a voice of God calling him, “Samuel. Samuel.” But he does not recognize it. We do not know exactly why. Maybe God was whispering in such a small voice. Maybe Samuel thought that it was ringing in his head rather than audible voice. So, he went to his master, Eli, and asked him if he was the one who called him. And this goes on twice.

What is surprising for me here is that the message is not actually for Samuel. The message is actually for Eli. But God does not speak to Eli, the temple leader, respected by his whole community as the reverend. The one who went to the seminary and wrote all the papers on the Hebrew Bible, history of Israel, worship of Jewish ritual and finally graduated with high honor. The one who would get up to speak in front of his congregation on the Sabbath and people would attentively listen to his message as if God had some message for them for that week. But no… it is not Eli who hears the voice of God, but Samuel, the young boy who does not have any seminary education, does not have any ministerial experience, does not have the certificate of ordination. God speaks to Samuel so that he would deliver the message to Eli.

If God would speak to us directly, or even if indirectly through someone else, would you be happy to hear the voice of God or be fearful of it? Most of us might think that if God could speak to us, God would praise us for our faithfulness in times of trouble and challenge. God would praise us for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and volunteering so many hours when other people seem pretty preoccupied with their own lives. But many of us would be fearful because we cannot control what God might have to tell us. And the fact that God knows deeply what we think, the words we may not tell others but what we think. God knows the times when we are fragile, failing, and unfaithful to our marriage, to our bodies, to our relationship with neighbors, and our God through our words and thoughts.

I am sure that Eli would have been fearful to hear the words of God. It is because his two sons were embezzling the money from the temple, sleeping with women who came to the temple, and committing despicable sins against God and their community. And somehow, Eli, the father to these two sons, have not been able to correct them. I do not know if it was out of the parental love for his prodigal sons. Or fear of losing his two sons if he spoke the truth against them. We think that we often do not hear the signs from God. Maybe, we keep missing them because we only hear what we want to hear – affirming words, kinds words, encouraging words, the prosperity gospel that we put our trust in God, God will repay our faith and deeds with good health and possession. But we do not want to face our ugly reality.

But Eli boldly overcomes the fear of facing his reality by encouraging Samuel to speak to him what God told him. Eli wants to be attentive to the will of God rather than denying the truth and being kept in his own world. Despite its difficulties, Eli seeks to be guided by God to show him the way when he felt completely lost with his two sons. And that is what I find remarkable about the church as the body of Christ. Although all of us are not perfect in our thoughts and acts, we are called as the church that confesses our sins and brokenness before God and others. We are baptized into the community in which the Holy Spirit strengthens to grow in our love for God and love for God’s world. It is in the church we often hear the voice of God telling us how much we are loved by God, and we need to turn around.

As Eric Elenes explains, we might not have the Map Quest that lists all the direction from the beginning to the end. We might not have the GPS that immediately corrects our route when we feel lost. But the Spirit of God reveals and meets us like the second of thunder lightening so that we can see just a little further. As we do so, we learn to trust in the guidance of God who constantly walks with us in this spiritual journey, even if we cannot clearly see with our eyes yet. When we are willing to face our reality and follow the guidance of the Spirit, God would show us the way even through the others or the marginalized or unqualified that we expected the least.

 

 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

– Thomas Merton

Sermon: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck

Date: March 19, 2017

Text – Job 37:1-5

 

When I was in the middle school, I often rode my bike to the school. My house was in a countryside where the bus came only 7 times per day. Most of the kids had to walk to the school for 1 hour and 20 minutes. It is a wonderful time of fellowship speaking with one another. But from time to time, I was late in the morning and had to ride my bike, which only took me 25 minutes to the school. The trouble was that it would rain in the afternoon involving thunder and lightning. My trip back home riding on the bike which is mostly metal was basically a praying time. “Lord, I was not a good son to my parents. I did not treat my younger brother, as I should. I was thinking about the pretty girl from youth group while my father was preaching. But I have so many things to do in this world. If you spare my life this time, I will try to be a better son, brother, and Christian.” Somehow, I took the thunder and lighting as a sign of God’s speaking to me.

When we see the lightning and hear the thunder, we are often filled with awe or even fear. There are about 10 strike of lighting on Earth’s surface every single second. And every bolt can contain up to one billion volts of electricity. A lightning bolt can be 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. And the lightning involves the thunder that is so loud shaking our ears. There is something about the thunder and lightning in a way that human history has often interpreted them as an instrument to convey the voice of God. Zeus, the god among the Greeks, is the god of thunder. Tahundi and Ivriz among the Anatolian cultures, and Baal among the Canaanites. One of the popular movies these days, Thor, also depicts a god that controls thunder. Thunder and lighting are powerful, majestic, loud, and out of control.

In the Hebrew culture, thunder and lightning were also seen as the voices of God. In Job 37, one of Job’s friends, Elihu, says, “Listen, listen to the thunder of God’s voice and the rumbling that comes from God’s mouth. God thunders with God’s majestic voice and God does not restrain the lightning when God’s voice is heard.” Although many Hebrew Bible scholars still debate, the consensus is that the story of Job is more like a saga to struggle with theological question, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Where do we find the presence of God in the midst of evil?” After Job lost his children, his property, and even his health, his three friends came and comforted him by staying silent for seven days. And the theological debate comes here. Elihu argues that human beings cannot fathom God because God is great in power and justice.

While thunder and lightning are mysterious even to the scientist, there are people who are struck by lightning. According to National Weather Service, there are about 318 million people in the U.S. in 2016. For the past 10 years, there are 310 people who were struck by lightning. (31 died and 279 injured) So, the odds of being struck by lightning are about 1 in million. It is very unlikely to happen to any of us but when that happens, I am sure that the impact is so deep and life-changing. And fro time to time, I believe that being thunderstruck happens to us in a mysterious way. I still remember Ted, a gentleman who was in his 90s, from my former church. Everytime I went to see him, he would tell me how he met his wife, June, in Toronto, Canada, how they rode the bus together, fell in love with each other, and gave her the first kiss. His body was aging. But his mind was sharp enough to tell the first moment of meeting his wife. It was electrifying for him.

Just like lightning can split a tree causing it to die in flame, when we are thunderstruck, it changes our lives completely. It alters our identity. In Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes believes that being thunderstruck is like a sudden flash of insight or awareness that rocks our whole world. God may speak to us in audible voice. God sometimes could call us through our inner voice. But when we sense that, it is so electrifying that it changes who we are. It can be overwhelming in the first place. It can be seen as altering our life course. But we realize that being thunderstruck can call us to be authentic to whom we are meant to be. Faithful to what God calls us to be. It may not be possible to prove it scientifically with numbers. But being thunderstruck by the Holy Spirit goes beyond individual and impacts the community and world.

When Saul was struck by the light on his way to Damascus, he heard the voice of Christ saying, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He answered, “Do I know you?” “It is me, Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” While Saul was struck by the light and having conversation with the risen Christ, his company did not see anything or hear anything. But he was completely changed with new name – Paul. He became the apostle for the gentiles spreading the Good News in the world. Such is the history of Methodism. When John Wesley was attending a Moravian meeting on Aldersgate in 1738, he felt that his heart was strangely warmed. He felt converted in his heart and started to preach boldly that Christ is the One who forgives us our sins and reconciles us with God. The movement of Methodism started spreading not only in England, but also Europe and America.

Being thunderstruck did not happen to Paul or Wesley because of their effort. Rather, as lightning strikes first, the Holy Spirit comes to us, strikes us, and dramatically changes who we are. When black slaves suffered under oppression, they knew that they were nobody. They were stripped down their names, separated from their families, and suffered heavy york. But when they secretly got together in the woods to worship God, they knew that God touched them and gave them new identity – they were sons and daughters of God who created them in God’s image. So, one of the black gospel music goes like this, “I know I’ve been changed I know I’ve been changed I know I’ve been changed Angels in Heaven done signed my name.” Despite the thorny and rocky road ahead, they knew that God was not done with them but certainly lead them through the wilderness to finally arrive in the Promised Land.

Have you also been thunderstruck? Just like the odds of being thunderstruck literally, it may not happen on a daily basis. But when it happens, it completely changes who you are. If it is God who strikes us with thunder and lightning, we feel closer to God and understand what purpose God has in our lives. I have such an experience. When I was junior in college, I was still clueless not knowing what to do with my life. I was at seminary studying theology but did not have conviction that I was at the right place. My father, at that time, happened to minister to a struggling congregation in urban setting. He asked me to work for him as assistant pastor mainly working with the Sunday school. Every Sunday, I was supposed to lead the worship service for little children and preach to them. What a misery it was for me! I felt that I had nothing to offer because I was not even sure that I believed in God.

And then I felt thunderstruck. One day, I and my family went to visit my younger brother who was serving in the military. On our way back home, we had a terrible car accident. Our car crashed the car in front of us. And the car behind us crashed us at the speed of 70 miles per hour. Just one split moment, I thought that we all died that afternoon. But miraculously everyone survived the horrible car accident. After reporting the accident to the police officers, we got into the car. My father said, “Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for sparing our lives today. You have a reason to give us another day. Let us not take our lives for granted but count our blessings everyday.” His voice was trembling and I really felt that some miraculous power saved my life that day. I felt that my life changed completely.

I started to read the Bible not because I felt judged by God. But I wanted to. I started to pray to God because I felt deeply connected with God. A month later, I was sleeping in my room. At dawn, I felt that my heart was beating so loudly. And I said, “God, help me.” And out of the pounding, a voice came to me calling my name. “Song Bok, Song Bok.” For the split moment, I intuitively knew that this was the voice of God that I had been waiting for so many years. I answered, “Here I am, Lord. Please speak to me.” And the voice responded, “You know, son? I love you very much.” And I responded back, “I love you too, Lord.” “Don’t worry. I will be with you until the end.” I still do not know if it was a vision or dream. But that completely changed who I was. That Sunday, I went to the church and stood before the Sunday school children and said, “Hey, kids. I met God last night.” And I could see that the eyes of children were filled with wonders and excitement.

I confess with you that from time to time, I wonder what I am doing as pastor when I feel tired, goes through conflict, or lack in ministerial skills. But just like thunder reverberates, my personal encounter of God always brings me back knowing that it was God who first sought me and changed me. And I invite you to think about your own moment of being thunderstruck in your life journey. It could be the audible voice of God. It could be inner voice, or even insight that completely changed who you are. Although we cannot understand clearly how it happened to us, we discern that we were thunderstruck at the moment so that God could meet us, speak to us, and call us. It might have been a time when you felt resolve about a decision, an “a-ah!” or it may have been simply a time when you were awed by God’s presence through nature, through a person or an incident and you experienced peace and joy, if only momentary. Take about 2 minutes each to share. If you would prefer simply reflecting inwardly or journaling, you are welcome to do that.

 

Sermon: They Do Not Know What They Are Doing

Click to listen to the sermon

Date: February 26, 2017

Preacher: Rev. Joyce Whetstone (Retired Elder of UMC)

Scripture – Luke 23:32-38

32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[a] And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him,[b] “This is the King of the Jews.”

 

 

Sermon: All You Need Is … ?

Date: February 19, 2017

 

Text – Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

 

I would like to begin today sermon with a song.

 

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.

Nothing you can say, but you can learn

How to play the game

It’s easy.

 

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.

No one you can save that can’t be saved.

Nothing you can do, but you can learn

How to be you in time

It’s easy.

 

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.”

(The Beatles, All You Need Is Love)

 

All You Need Is Love is a song by the Beatles that was released in July 1967. The Beatles were asked to write a song with a message that could be understood by everyone. So, John Lennon wrote this song to give a message to the world, very clear and simple – love is everything we need. Happy marriage. Happy family. Happy work. Happy world. All our problems would be solved if we can love one another.

 

However, John Jacobs, a psychiatrist, “All You Need Is Love” is one of many lies when it comes to marriage. He shares that many couples come to his office saying, “We love each other so much. Why are we so unhappy?” He says that although the myth “All You Need Is Love” sounds wonderful, it often leaves people unskilled in developing and unprepared to manage sustained intimate relationships. When people get married, they often come to realize the true difficulties and complexities of the married life.[1] The prince comes and kisses Cinderella and wakes her up from the eternal sleep. They fall in love. What the fairy tale does not tell us is what happens after they get married. The prince or Cinderella goes to work and comes home late. They argue over how to spend limited resources or how to get the kids a good education in underfunded, overcrowded public schools. In other words, “All You Need Is Love” often works against our pursuing healthy marriage by not fully embracing the challenges of marriage.

 

When it comes to Christianity, many seem to define what the gospel is about by the similar mantra. “All You Need Is Love.” “Love Your God. You Your Neighbors.” It is all about love. So, let’s love one another regardless of who we are. Then all our problems will be solved. If we just love our God more, we will not have any trouble with the declining number of attendance on Sunday. It we just love our young people more, we will attract more to the Sunday schools. A pastor walks into the finance committee and hears that there would be a big financial hole by the end of the year. And the pastor tells the members of the finance committee, “It is all because we do not love our God enough. We have become so selfish.” The fact of matter is that there is a shifting paradigm of why people give and how people give. People are still generous by wanting to give where their resources can be used in a meaningful way such as orphanage, disaster relief, or hospital. They are just not sure if the church is a faithful steward. Jesus calls us to go deeper in our relationship with God, in our understanding, and in our faith.

 

In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus continues to teach on the mountain. And he challenges our popular notion of “All You Need Is Love” by saying, “When I tell you to love your neighbors, I do not mean just those whom you consider your friend or family. You know what you have heard. “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I am telling you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I can feel that the Beatle’s song “All You Need Is Love” fades away slowly when we think about all those whom we think did wrong to us. Think about Tom who goes behind your back and spreads rumor about you. Think about Susan who borrowed your money and still has not paid back. Worse, think about those who did wrong not just to you, but also to your children or your family. And what do you do?

 

It is natural that our initial response to someone wrongdoing to us is simply pay it back. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Such rule was placed in the Israel community so that it could “curb the tendency to unlimited private revenge by incorporating the jus talionis into the institutionalized judicial system. In other words, even before Jesus there was a Jewish tradition calling for restraint and opposing revenge so that it could minimize the retaliation against the party that did the wrongdoings.[2] “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is also what defines our legal system – the retributive justice. But Jesus radicalizes the Jewish tradition by not only opposing the unlimited revenge, but also loving our enemies as our friends or families. And that is not an ordinary love. It is a scandalous love. It is not a love that we can sing with a sentiment that love can unite us all no matter who we are.

 

Jesus is asking us, “Can you sing the song with those who do wrong against you?” When I was the sophomore in college, I was staying at a dormitory that was built by the American missionaries in the 1980s. At that time, there was a conflict between the minister, a retired minister of Korean Methodist Church, for the dormitory and the student council. I happened to be the vice chair of the student body and we were in constant conflict. I was filled with my own sense of justice. My relationship with this retired pastor got worse and worse. We both said something really ugly. We always argued. Our relationship came to the dead end when he filed a lawsuit against me. I was only 19 years old. He even called my father threatening that he was going to talk to the bishop if he did not control my behavior. It was one thing that we had conflict. But he came after my family?

 

But when we are filled with anger to the point that we want to pay back with more violence, we are already destroying our soul. We think that we deserve to pursue justice. But when we recognize the thoughts in our minds, and behaviors of our bodies, we realize that this is not what we are meant to be. We are actually destroying ourselves by forgetting how God created us in the beginning – that we are the children of God created in the image of God. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he does not say this because such non-violence brings better result of peace and justice in the world. But his new commandment is concerned with the redemptive work of God in the world. It is for our salvation. It is for salvation of others. He says, “Love your enemies and forgive them so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (v.45)

 

After the incident with the minister, I joined the army in Korea, as it is mandatory for every Korean male. And I was not in peace in my mind as I thought about my life before joining the army. I prayed that God would heal me and forgive me. It was the Father’s Day in Korea. And I took the pen and wrote my letter to the minister with sincere apology. I said to him that I was truly sorry for what happened between us. And I loved and respected him as my father. After a couple of months, I was given a short vacation. I decided to visit the dormitory to see my friends. When the minister saw me from his office through the glass, I still remember that he ran like a wind to give me a hug and said, “You know, son, it is me who should have told you sorry.” We both cried and reconciled with each other. Whenever I think about the moment of reconciliation, I still feel the chill in my body that my burden of anger, violent thought, and revenge was completely liberated from me.
When people say forgiveness and reconciliation, they often misuse to justify their recurring action of misdemeanor. It happens a lot within the marital relationship that a spouse is abused by the other physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “Honey, you go to the church. And I know that God commands you to love your enemy. I know that I have done wrong to you. So, you need to forgive me.” The perpetrator demands forgiveness from the victim, otherwise shaming her that she is not a faithful Christian. However, the true sign of repentance is not only that we confess our sins against God and neighbors, but also we do not sin anymore. God gives us a power and courage to forgive and reconcile. God does not command us to remain as victim by constantly being manipulated. Rather, God shows compassion to those who cry out in suffering and leads them out to the Promise Land.

 

And Jesus tells us why we practice such radical love, or scandalous love in our lives. He says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (v.48) One of the distinct marks of Methodism is that we believe in Christian perfection. John Wesley does not mean Christian perfection as a status in which we are completely free from sins, free from illness, or free from ignorance. Rather, he means that we are perfect in our love for God and love for our neighbors. It is not a status, but journey that the Holy Spirit empowers us along the way. When we forgive and reconcile with our neighbors and also enemies, we realize that we are growing in our love for God. Just as we smile at our children when they show our own characteristics, God is pleased when we try to be like God in forgiving others and embracing them as our neighbors.

 

With racial tension arising in our society today, many of us still remember the shooting in Charleston, SC. On June 17, 2015, during a prayer service, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and killed nine people. It is unimaginable how this young man was disillusioned to believe that his violence motivated by racial hatred would achieve anything. But the relatives of people slain decided to face the shooter at his first court appearance. The sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor said, “I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”[3] Some might still blame his mental illness as the cause of the tragedy. Some might wonder where God was in the middle of such tragedy. But God was surely there when these families and relatives tried to live out the scandalous love of God for our enemies.

 

I am asking you this morning. Whom do we need to forgive in our minds and hearts? Whom is Jesus asking us to offer our forgiveness and be reconciled? I know that it is not easy. But we know that we do not offer forgiveness out of our own good will or righteousness. But we remember what Jesus said on the cross. “Father, please forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24) And can we offer the same forgiveness to our neighbors and even enemies today? We may not. But God can. And the Holy Spirit will give us the power and strength that we need in this broken and divided world. Amen.

 

 

 

[1] John Jacobs, All You Need Is Love & Other Lies about Marriage

[2] NIB: Matthew, 194.

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/06/19/i-forgive-you-relatives-of-charleston-church-victims-address-dylann-roof/?utm_term=.1c7c9aace05f

Sermon: Do Your Job

Date –  February 5, 2017

Text – Matthew 5:13-20

 

This past week, I and my family went to IKEA in New Haven (CT) to buy a small table for Daniel. I was wearing my Patriots hood. When I was about to pay, the clerk saw me and snorted, “Look, you are in the wrong neighborhood. When you go home, take off your hoodie and burn it.” It turned out that he was a New York Giants fan. First of all, I love sports but I am not a fanatic enough to tell others to burn their jersey. Second, I thought that New Haven was still part of New England. But I guess I was wrong. Third, I just remembered the painful memory with New York Giants in the Super Bowl 2012. The Patriots was leading the game 17-15 with 57 seconds away from getting the fourth title. But the running back of the Giants, Ahmad Bradshaw, did a touch down that took away the victory of the Patriots. It is known that the coach, Bill Belichick, preaches to his team, “Do Your Job” in order to win the game. Obviously, at the last minute, the defense line could not do the job that they were supposed to do.

In his sermon on the mountain, Jesus seems to say the similar thing to the crowd gathered. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. So, let your light shine before others.” In a way, I visualize Jesus putting on his headset and gathers his crowd before the game begins. He cheers each player in each position and reminds them of their work, “You all have a job to do. Do your job.” We might have different personalities, skin colors, genders, cultures, family histories, or nationalities. We might have different skill sets and different careers. But we are called to make a church, the body of Christ, and respond to the call of Jesus, “I call you to be the salt and light in the world. Do Your Job.”

But the question seems to be this, “How can we do our jobs and be what we are supposed to be?” “What does it mean to be the salt and light of the world?” In other words, what is the purpose of our lives? Let me ask you a very simple question. “Why did you get out of the bed this morning?” Of course, we got out of the bed today to come to the church. How about tomorrow? We get out of the bed because we need to go to work. We get out of the bed because we need to ready our children for school. But what happens when we retire from our works or when our children graduate from school and move away? According to a recent study, “people who describe themselves as lacking a clear purpose in life are more likely to suffer cognitive decline and develop Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, we know that there is a genetic reason why we develop Alzheimer’s disease. But lacking the purpose of our lives could lead our struggle in experiencing the abundant life.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a restless soul who was searching for the purpose of his life. He grew up as the son of an Anglican priest, Samuel, nurtured by the strict religious education of his mother, Susanna. He was educated at Oxford University and became the Lincoln Fellow, which was equivalent to professor today. Although he had a promising career as a priest and professor, he abandoned them and decided to go to the colonies in Georgia as a missionary. He thought that he could spread the gospel and make disciples among the colonists and eventually the indigenous people in America. But he failed miserably. It seems that he was deeply struggling to find the purpose of his life. You may have your job. You may have your family. You may have your health. But they do not necessarily fulfill the purpose of our lives.

For Wesley, he realized the purpose of his life when he felt strangely warm in his warm at the Moravian gathering on Aldersgate Street. Somehow, he realized that he was accepted as the child of God. It was the grace of God alone that saved him from all his efforts. It was the love of God that made him realize that he had a purpose in his life. The Book of Genesis says that we are created in the image of God. It does not mean that God has our skin color, facial features, hand, and foot. Just like our children inherit the characters of their parents, John Wesley interprets that the image of God indicates our character as the children of God. As God is love, we are created in the character of God who loves us unconditionally.[1] We are created to love God and God’s people and God’s creation. That is the chief purpose of our lives. That is our job to do in this world – we are called to love.

When we say love, however, we often speak of love in a very comfortable sense. I once met an American missionary from Japan who told me, “There seems to be cultural problem with the way people use the word, “love,” in English. We say, “I love a chocolate.” “I love a vacation.” “I love my car.” What he was saying was that in Japan, people do not use the word “Love” to indicate one’s affection to subject. According to the Japanese etymology, love means to love people through your actions and with your heart. In other words, there is no deep feeling, mutual relationship, between the one that loves, and the other that receives the love. And we use the same word in interrelationship, “I love you.” I wonder if you ever feel that we are losing the depth of love that urges to give ourselves for others. Love in Christian tradition is a very radical word that upsets our status quo and calls us to lay aside our ego and ourselves.

Love is a dangerous and even upsetting word that connotes act of mercy and compassion. When people compare between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, they are likely to dismiss the former because he advocated the use of violence in protecting the black lives. They quickly jump to Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated the non-violence and support the idea of loving one another. But we should know that MLK’s understanding of love is grounded in the biblical understanding of love – agape. The sacrificial love of Christ. When Jesus tells us, “Love your enemy,” MLK acknowledged, “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see that goes on ad infinitum. But the strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.”[2] In other words, love is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of power of forgiveness.

And that is what Jesus calls us to live out today. Do your job. Love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbors as yourselves. It is love that goes beyond the self-interest of our existence that we offer ourselves for God and neighbors. When we board on the flight, the flight attendants tell us that in case of emergency, we are to put the mask of oxygen ourselves before we help our children or others. People often talk about this illustration to indicate the importance of self-care. However, the problem is that we often forget to help others after we put on our own masks. We are loved, welcomed, embraced by God so that we can love, welcome, and embrace others. M. Eugene Boring, the commenter of New Interpreter’s Bible, also points out that when Jesus says that we are the salt, the salt does not exist for itself, nor do the disciples; their life is turned outward to the world.[3]

In Super Bowl 2015, I am sure that many Patriots fans were remembering the nightmare from Super Bowl 2012 with 74 seconds left and the Patriots clinging to a 28-24 lead. The Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse just caught almost impossible pass despite excellent defense from Malcolm Butler. The touch down was only 1 yard away. As Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw his pass Butler streamed back and intercepted the pass. The game was over. The undrafted rookie, Butler, finished the game because he did his part. Butler recounted later, “I wasn’t feeling to well but you know my teammates tried to cheer me up. They said I made a great play. When I got back out there I just had to make a play.” Bill Belichick said, “We prepare for that situation as part of our goal-line package.”[4] Butler did his job because he knew exactly what he had to do. But I also believe that he was able to make the play because of the cheer from his teammates – a purpose bigger than himself.

Today, the Patriots are playing in the Super Bowl competing for another cup again. It is just a game. We can win or lose. But the lesson is this. We all have our jobs to do as the children of God in this world – that we are called to be the light that drives away darkness, the darkness of fear, hatred, and evil. We are called to be the salt to sacrifices ourselves for others. Do your job. The job that Christ calls us is bigger than our own sense of happiness in the world. But our happiness is a fruit that we bear when we faithfully respond to the call to love our God and neighbors – not just our families and friends, but also our enemies and those whom we disagree and dislike. It is such a difficult calling. But you know what? When the players fail to do their jobs in the football, they are either discontinued in their contract or traded to another team. We also fail to love God and love others as Christ calls us to do. But when we do so, Christ does not trade us to another team but comes down to us and sacrifices his life on the cross for us so that we can gain victory in God’ name.

So, no matter what you are going through, you feel beat, tired, frustrated, or worn out, please know that we are here as Christian brothers and sisters to cheer you up and point to the love of Christ who never fails and who tells us that the game is not over yet. We shine the light of Christ – the light of love, compassion, mercy, and justice in this world. Will you pleas arise and sing with me?

 

This little light of mine

I’m gonna let it shine

Let is shine, let it shine, let it shine.

 

Hide it under a bushel? No!

I’m gonna let it shine

Let is shine, let it shine, let it shine.

 

Don’t let Satan blow it out,

I’m gonna let it shine

Let is shine, let it shine, let it shine.

 

This little light of mine

I’m gonna let it shine

Let is shine, let it shine, let it shine.

 

 

[1] John Wesley, Sermon: “New Birth”

[2] Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon: “Loving Your Enemies: 17 November 1957.

[3] M. Eugene Boring, NIB: Matthew, 182.

[4] http://blog.masslive.com/patriots/2015/02/malcolm_butler_feature.html

Sermon: Whose Conversion?

January 29, 2017

Text – Acts 9:1-20

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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