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You are Called to be Loved and to Love (John 13:31-35)

April 30, 2013

There is a concept of who we are in the Great Thanksgiving of the Holy Communion in the pocket version of the UMC: “God created us to be loved and to love.” I think this is a wonderful definition about who Christians are. Regarding the identity of Christians, Henri Nouven once said that sometimes we answer the question “Who am I?” with the response, “I am what I do.” When we have a little success in life, we feel good about ourselves, but when we fail, we start getting depressed. We are not what we do, but we are God’s beloved. Remember this in every corner of your being: “You are the beloved.”

Jesus says in today’s gospel passage, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another” (John 13:34). The Bible is a collection of love stories. In particular, the dual commandment to love God and love neighbor was well known from the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Luke 10:27). So the commandment to love is not something new at all. Why, then, does Jesus call this a new commandment? It is a new teaching because Jesus relates this commandment to the discipleship. Jesus continues to say that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

What does it mean to be a disciple? We are told in the gospels that Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus, and the other disciples ran away. Jesus called them to be disciples, and they followed Jesus without knowing what it means to be a disciple. Becoming a disciple of Jesus cannot not be accomplished by a magic ritual. The celebration of baptism is the climax of becoming a disciple of Jesus. Likewise, confirmation is the beginning of faith journey. So Jesus teaches us love as what it means to be a disciple. Like Jesus’ disciples, many folks today still join a congregation, but they don’t really know why they join a congregation. You join this congregation to be part of a community that intentionally is built around the central value of love. The church is a community of love. We love that why we join Sunday school; we love that why we join UMW; we love that why we come to the Bible study; we love that why we come to the worship service. We are becoming Jesus’ disciple through love.

In Acts 11, Peter learns to welcome and love Cornelius and other Gentiles who he previously thought were unworthy of his love or God’s love. We are the people of love and love makes something sacred. With love everything, the church building, the community, the family, and the world, becomes a sacrament.

Where is Jesus in your life? When you practice love, then Jesus will be there. So love is not a happy feeling, but a way of life with Jesus. I was so surprised to find a story about Mother Teresa. A social activist Shane Claiborne shared his experience of Mother Teresa’s deformed feet. Her feet represent her love for the needy. One of the sisters said, “Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them.” Claiborne concludes this beautiful story with the following confession: “Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet” (The Irresistible Revolution, pp. 167-168). Even though Mother Teresa’s feet look so ugly, they are so special because of love. Her feet are so precious.

You are special because you have been loved by God. The commandment of love is not a just commandment, but it is a gift for all of us to live as Jesus’ disciples. Our love should go beyond religion, ethnicity, gender, and class. Again, you are so special and blessed because Jesus called you to beloved and to love. Amen.

Baptism: A Calling to the Children of God (Isa 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

January 13, 2013

As we observe today as the Sunday of Baptism of the Lord, I would like invite you to think about the following questions: “What does it mean to say that we are ‘claimed’ by God?” “What happens at baptism?” “Is baptism an ending point or a beginning point in our relationship with God?” These are really good questions for an understanding of Baptism. For some people, baptism is just like joining the Jesus club. Everyone knows what it means to join a club such as Boy Scouts. For some people, baptism is a religious ceremony which symbolizes salvation. For some people, baptism is a ritual for special life-cycle ceremonies like wedding. But baptism should be understood more than these ways.

What does the Bible say about baptism? The Old Testament never talks about baptism. Instead, ritual cleansings of the body were well established. For example, Naaman was told to wash seven times in the Jordan to be healed (2 Kgs 5:10). Likewise, some people define baptism as a purification of sin just like a washing. We know that clothing needs to be washed to become clean and we know that we need to be washed of our sins in order to be clean. John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Interestingly, all the people of Judean country side and Jerusalem confessed their sins, when they were baptized by John. So the purpose of John’s baptism is to invite people to repent. In this way, John’s baptism can be a purification rite to be clean. Paul seems to define baptism as the participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Letter to Colossians:

When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:12)

How do the scripture passages today define baptism? Both passages define baptism as a liturgical form of calling. We are called to be the children of God through baptism. In other words, baptism is a form of calling. The passage of Isaiah said today,

I have called you by name, you are mine. (Isa 43:1)

So the people of Israel belong to God. How many times does the passage reinforce the fact that we belong to God? God’s identification with us is not described in terms of possession but in loving terms. The very last verse of the Gospel passage today is also an invitation of God:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:22)

Some of you were baptized as an infant whereas some were baptized as an adult. Whether you were baptized as an infant baptism or an adult baptism, baptism is not an event that happened in the past. It is a beginning point in our relationship with God. I was baptized when I was 16 years old. I don’t remember whether I confess my sins or not at that time. But what I do remember is that the pastor, who officiated at the baptismal service, told me: “From now you became a child of God.” Then I felt that from now I belong to God. So for me, baptism is the starting point of my new life with God. That was all about my own baptism. So baptism is not a long forgotten event, but a beginning point of our life journey with God.

Jesus’ baptism as a calling story is the beginning point of his ministry Did he need to be baptized as a forgiveness of sins? No. Jesus’ baptism is different from John’s baptism, but it has to do with calling as we are also called by God when we are baptized. The story of Jesus’ baptism goes like this. Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus, but Jesus was baptized by him. Jesus was immersed into the Jordan River. As he came up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The scene what Jesus saw when he was coming up out of the water is reminiscent of God’s spirit hovering over the waters and speaking creation into existence in Genesis 1:1-5. Thus Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry just as God begins his work of creation by mentioning the havens torn apart and the Spirit of God in Genesis 1. The background of the Spirit’s coming appears in the Old Testament promising for the new age such as the Servant Song of Isaiah 42:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isa 42:1)

If you imagine this scene of Jesus’ baptism, you can clearly see Jesus is invited by God. A voice came from heaven:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Luk 3:22)

What does it mean to recall our baptism? By recalling our baptism, we’re reminded that we are the children of God. It’s time to remind yourself, “You’re the precious one. God loves you.” Friends, God invites Jesus into his work of creation by baptism. Likewise, God invites all of you to be part of his creatures by baptism. In baptism, you receive God’s love, and you’re the precious one.” What a powerful message about baptism. I wonder how many times you heard anyone saying to you, “You’re the precious one.”

Jesus’ baptism is not a baptism of repentance, but a baptism of invitation to God’s new creative world. By baptism, we enter into a new covenantal relationship with God. You all become God’s beloved children. Baptism is a sign of new life, and it is a gift of God. But, we simply forget how precious we are in God. By remembering our own baptism, we remind the fact that God claims you as God’s own. So, remember your baptism. The good news is that in your baptism, God has called you, and continue to bless us in this New Year 2013. Amen.

A Christmas Message: “Immanuel” (Matt 1:23)

January 4, 2013

The true history of human beings is nothing less than the history of suffering. So one may ask the question, “Where is God when things go wrong?” A social analyst defines the twentieth century as “the century of genocide.” We remember the genocide of Armenians in Turkey in the early 1910s, the genocide of six million Jews during the World War II, the genocide of Nanjing, the genocide of Cambodian in the later 1970s, and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo in the late 1990s. What about the natural disasters? The world’s worst natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and hurricanes, occurred in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Where is God when bad things happen to good people? The parents of 20 children, who lost their beloved child by the gunman at the Connecticut elementary school on December 2012, may have asked, “Where was God when my child was killed?”

When the people of God experience sufferings, in the Bible, they ask: “O Lord, how long?” (Ps 6:3); “How long will you look on?” (Ps 35:17). The answer is this: “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” What does it mean when you say “God with us”?

When God appears before Moses at the burning bush, Moses asks God’s name. Then God says to Moses, “אהיה אשׁר אהיה,” which most English translators translated, “I AM WHO I AM (Exod 3:14).” But grammatically, it should be translated, “I Shall Be As I Shall Be.” The most famous rabbi Roshi explains that this divine name should be understood in the following way: “I shall be with them in this sorrow as I shall be with them in other sorrow.” To this, Moses replies, “An evil in its own time is enough! Why should You imply to them that there will be future exiles; is it not enough that they suffer now in Egypt? Accepting Moses’ argument, God instructed him to say, “I Shall Be [with them in this sorrow] has sent me to you” (Rashi from Berachos 9b).

According to the Midrash, the word “I Shall Be (אהיה) describes God as timeless and eternal presence with those who suffer. This lesson teaches me that God was with the people who suffered in the past; God is with the people who are suffering right now; and God will be with them in the future.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appeared to Joseph and said to him, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us” (Matt 1:23). It was the good news for those who experienced suffering. The boy born to Mary relived the career of Israel. He came out of Egypt with his parents, delivered a Sermon on the Mount like Moses, changed the world, offered up his own life on the cross, rose again from the dead, and then promised in the final sentence of the Great Commission: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That “I am with you” is clearly grace.

Some of our church members lost their beloved one in this year. Friends of ours lost their job in this year. How do you hear the word “Immanuel” in the midst of difficult times? The good news is that God is with us when we are going through a time of suffering. In other words, when we suffer, then it’s a time to experience God’s presence. It’s time to know who God is for you personally. People may know your God through your weakness. You become the witness of God’s love from your weakness.

Now, today is Christmas Eve. Here is the good news that God was with us this year 2012, and God will be with us in the coming New Year 2013: “Immanuel.” Amen.

Giving all Our (Mark 12:38-44)

November 12, 2012

Today’s Gospel passage is Mark 12:38-44. Jesus, in this passage, tells us an illustration of what it means to love God with all the heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself  from the poor widow’s offering (Mark 12:33). Jesus says to his disciples, “This poor widow has put more into the treasure than all the others” (Mark 12:43). Notice her double minority status; being a poor person and a widow. Jesus tells this story of widow’s offering to teach his disciples about giving, but it implies more than giving.

Jesus compares the two main characters in this passage: the scribes and the poor widow. The scribes walked around in the garb of the rich and powerful and gravitated toward places where they would be publicly acknowledged. In contrast, the nameless poor widow at the treasury gave God all that she had. Looking at these two different characters, Jesus points out, “The rich gave from their abundance while the widow gave from her poverty” (Mark 12:44). The expression that “she gave God all she had” reminds us Jesus’ two great commandments:

The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31, my emphasis)

The painting “The Widow’s Mite” was depicted by James C. Christensen in 1988. Christensen explained the painting as follows:

In the Widow’s Mite, the lights and shadows are symbolic of spiritual and worldly power. The woman glows with an inner light. By contrast, the rich, bejeweled city fathers are in the dark. Even the widow’s clothing, though ragged, glows with a celestial light. The point here is not money; it’s what we are willing to give of ourselves.

I can see, in the painting, that the scribes are the exact opposite of the poor widow. In the painting, the scribes look like that they are trying to gain honor and wealth, whereas the poor widow is looking out toward the viewer of the painting. It seems like that she loves God with all her heart, and all her soul, and with all her mind.

Giving is an expression of our thanksgiving. Notice that she offered everything that she had. Everything doesn’t necessary mean just money, but it also includes our hearts, minds, talents, and time. Giving is our response to God’s love and grace with all our heart and minds. We all together give thank to God for he has given us many blessings throughout the year. Amen.

Wilderness School: Life Journey

September 20, 2012

Taken from Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander

During the Bible study in the Fall 2012, “Introduction to the Bible,” one of the participants asked me, “Why did the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years?” Many numbers given in the Bible have often been interpreted symbolically. For example, the flood lasts for forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:12), and it marks a “new beginning.” According to the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness (Num 14:33; Deut 2:7; 29:5). Why? One may say the period of forty years indicates one generation since forty years is a typical biblical expression for one generation (see Gen 25:20). Other would say that forty years shows the period of punishment for the Israelites’ disobedience to God, although there is no sense in those passages of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

I’m convinced by the Lutheran pastor Daniel Erlander who does a nice job of interpreting the Bible from the inclusive perspective with his own biblical cartoons. As you can see his cartoon above, the wilderness is a school in which “the Israelites have to be taught how to live as a free people” (David Erlander). According to Exodus 16, the Israelites murmured against Moses in the wilderness saying,

If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (Exod 16:3, NRSV)

They wanted to go back to Egypt, a place of slavery and oppression. So they have to learn how to live not with the bread of tyrant, but with the Manna which is the heavenly bread. It took them forty years.  We are on the journey that may be never ending. What did you learn in your journey today? In your life journey, remember what Jesus says, “strive first for the kingdom of God, and all things will be given to you” (Matt 6:33). May God richly bless you as you continue on your journey through life!

Sacred Space and Sacred Heart (1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43)

August 27, 2012

During the field trip to Anderson Japanese Garden two weeks ago, I learned that Japanese consider their garden as a sacred space for meditation and reflection.

Field Trip to Anderson Japanese Garden, Rockford

For pious Jews, Jerusalem is the Holy city, and within Jerusalem the Wailing Wall is clearly a more holy location than the secular parts of the city. For some people, sacred space is not a building or a city, but ways of life. In his book, for example, Laughter is Sacred Space, the Mennonite actor, Ted Swartz said that “… to be able make people laugh is the way that I engage them first.” For the people who are suffering from grief and depression, laughter can be a right solution to get out of their suffering. What is your sacred space?

We hear from today’s Old Testament passage that Solomon built the Temple, and made it as a sacred space (1 Kings 8). But remember that it is Solomon’s prayer. What is the prayer all about? Solomon’s prayer expresses a covenant about this space or the people in it (such as the baptismal covenant). Solomon regards both his Temple and his people as sacred. We know that God is bigger than the Temple that Solomon built. It is true that Solomon realizes that God is bigger than that building when he says: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). It sounds like what Isaiah says,

This is what the Lord says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that? Could you build me such a resting place? (Isa 66:1)

For Isaiah, the whole universe, heaven and earth, is God’s temple. But Solomon prays that God would make this temple as the place where his Name dwells (1 Kings 8:29). Notice that Solomon does NOT say that the Temple is the place where God will be there, instead, he prays that God’s Name will be there. Solomon says,

O Lord my God, heed the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today and your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place (1 Kings 8:28-29).

What does it mean that God’s name shall be in the Temple? It is a symbolic representation of God’s presence as the tree of life symbolizes life itself. The tree of life has become a symbol of love, wisdom, rebirth, strength, forgiveness, friendship, and prosperity. During the exile, the Jews used to come to Jerusalem and they prayed toward Jerusalem as Daniel did three times a day:

He continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously (Dan 6:10).

What do we learn from Solomon’s prayer is that the Temple that Solomon built is a symbol of a sacred space, that is God’s Name is there. What about our church?

Today, we practice baptism in the church, not in our houses or any private place as John the Baptist baptized people in the Jordan River. The church is a sacred space for Christians. We come to the church to worship God. Why? We could worship God in our home. Why do we come to the church for worship? God is bigger than our church building. We know that God can be everywhere here and there. But we come to the church for worship because we consider our church as a sacred space. It is sacred because all our holy memories are here at the church. We were baptized here at the church. We were taught by Sunday school teachers here at our church. I can feel God’s grace and love during the worship service. That is why I come to the church. Our church is a sacred space for us because here we are forgiven by God; here we experience reconciliation with God and with people; and here we experience transformation and change. What a wonderful sacred space it is! But keep this in mind that you are the one who makes this place as sacred. So your heart should be holy and sacred. The good news is that you are blessed because your heart is sacred. Your heart is more important than anything else including the church building. You’re blessed because God is seeking you. In John 4, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman that worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.

Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but yousay that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him  (John 4:20-23, my emphasis).

Now, the sacred space is neither the mountain nor Jerusalem anymore, nor the cosmic tree, nor the Japanese garden. It is our heart because God is there in your heart. Look at around you! These people who worship here our sacred space are sacred. May God bless your heart as you keep it as a sacred space! Amen.

God’s Abundant Blessings (John 6:1-21)

July 31, 2012

In the Gospel of John, a sign is an amazement that is beyond human knowledge and ability. Remember the story of Jesus’ sign in Cana’s wedding banquet? Jesus turned water into wine. Conversely, modern high technology and human pride would turn wine into water. Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish not with six months’ wages as Philip suggested. The people in Jesus’ time saw this sign and followed Jesus.

We modern people would think that the food that the five thousand people ate must be cheap burgers, such as ham burgers or cheese burgers. But notice what the passage says that Jesus handed bread and fish over to them, as much as they wanted. They were satisfied (John 6:11-12). Jesus gave them food as much as they wanted. So this story of Jesus’ feeding five thousand tells us God’s abundant blessings. God will bless us when we seek sign and divine help. God will bless us when we share our food. God will bless us when we seek the values of faith. I can recall David Jensen’s article “The Big Mactm and the Lord’s Table.” It is a theological interpretation of globalization. He talks about two meals: The McMeal and the Lord’s Supper; the food of scarcity and the food of abundance. Jensen describes the contrast between two meals in the following way:

“When McMeal encourages hoarding, the Lord’s Supper fosters sharing; when McMeal longs for a homogenous culture, the Lord’s Supper celebrates the diversity of God’s children” (David Jensen, “The Big Mactm and the Lord’s Table,” Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Spring 2007).

In God’s economy, we do not earn our blessings, but they are simply given abundantly. This story of Jesus’s feeding five thousand reminds us the Manna. It is the heavenly food that God generously provided for the people of Israel in the wilderness (Exod 16:35). Wilderness in this case symbolizes the scarcity of food and water. By feeding the Israelites, God taught them that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Lord (Duet 8:3). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the bread of life that is God’s abundant blessings (John 6:35).

In addition to the connection of the Manna and the sign of the feeding five thousand, John shapes this story in ways that connect Jesus with the figure of Moses. The mountain location, which John records twice (John 6:3, 15), would have reminded readers of Moses going up the mountain to receive God’s law. Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” may also point to the ten plagues. People declare Jesus “the prophet” Moses is also called “the prophet” (Deut 18:15). This feeding enacts the limitless grace, which is God’s abundant blessings as described in the Exodus story (Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, 72]).

The Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12 tells us someone who has abundant goods, but he lives in the scarcity of blessing and grace. The rich man stored all his grain and goods saying himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). The table fellowship in the Book of Acts tells us God’s abundant blessings for the faith community. They shared food and broke bread with each other because God provided more than enough to go around. The good news today is that God will bless us abundantly as we share what we have. We have limited resources, but God will provide us limitless blessings. We are the witnesses of this amazing sign. Amen.