Sermon: Do Not Be Afraid

Date: August 13, 2017

 

Text – Matthew 14:22-33

Title – Do Not Be Afraid

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sermon “Overcoming Fear”

[2] Laws against Holocaust Denial, Wikipedia

Sermon: 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/