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: 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