Category Archives: SERMONS

Living With Abundance 8/2/15

Living With Abundance

Ecclesiastes 8: 8-16

Luke 12:13-21

Vicky Hanjian

August 2, 2015

Well, this is a doozy of a parable – one that causes us to question “What did he mean by that?” This is Jesus – speaking to his disciples apart from the crowd of thousands who are literally trampling on one another in their efforts to get close to Jesus.

And then – – an interruption – -seemingly out of the blue. A man emerges as an individual out of the crowd and asks Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute. We struggle with Jesus’ response. It almost seems out of character – lacking in understanding and compassion. He asks the man “Who makes me a judge or arbitrator over you?” We would rather that Jesus listened to the man’s complaint against his brother – – and give him advice for how to resolve it – – but Jesus does not answer him directly. He abruptly gives a terse teaching, presumably turning back to his disciples…and facing the crowd: “And he said to them ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

In a way, these words kind of set us up to understand the parable that follows as story warning us about the dangers of greed. But our Bible study last week took us in another direction – toward the question of how do we live with abundance?

The opening line of the parable reads “The land of a rich man produced abundantly” – – Apparently he was a reasonably good steward of his good land. He farmed it well and it produced a bumper crop that year. One almost wonders if he was surprised at the bounty as he talks to himself. “What am I going to do with this? I have no place to store this much food.” One might also wonder if he might also have had a bumper crop of zucchini or tomatoes or kale – we tend to ask the same questions as the height of the summer harvest comes on. What are we going to do with the abundance?

The farmer’s answer is to tear down his existing barn and build a bigger one. All week long I kept hearing the classic line from “JAWS” in the deep background: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat!” The farmer needed a bigger barn. So far, so good. He’s doing the prudent thing – taking care of the bounty – – making adequate storage so it doesn’t spoil or get wasted. Greed does not seem to be the issue. When the barn is built and all of the grain is safely under cover, he takes a few moments to sit back and relax – maybe he has the great feeling of satisfaction that comes when the last of the pickling cukes have been sealed in their jars and the tomatoes have all been turned into sauce for the winter, and the last of the beans have been blanched and placed in the freezer.

The Farmer kicks back in his rocking chair on the porch. Maybe a glass of wine and some good cheese (grape juice if he is a Methodist!). He rejoices – – talks to himself: “Soul – – – time to relax – – you have enough to last for many years – – Eat! Drink – Be merry!” Oooops! God appears in the story and puts another spin on the farmer’s deep satisfaction: “You fool! You won’t live through the night! When you are gone, who will own all that you have stashed away?”

But maybe the story isn’t about a greedy man – – maybe it’s about a person who just doesn’t know what to do with abundance. The version of the gospel that we read pictures God saying: “Fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” There are other translations that read “Fool! On this very night they

(all your possessions) are demanding your life from you.” Is it possible that the abundance the Farmer was celebrating was also the thing that put his soul in danger? Parables pose disturbing questions. What do we do with abundance?

There is a clue about a possible meaning hidden in plain sight in the parable. The farmer says to his Soul: “eat, drink and be merry”. – The way we most commonly hear it is “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.” So familiar – where does it come from? We heard it in the reading from Ecclesiastes. The opening words of the book of Ecclesiastes are most often read as “vanity upon vanity, all is vanity” or “Utter futility! All is futile!” But the Hebrew word hevel that gets translated as vanity or futility also means “insubstantial” “impermanent”, even “vaporous”. The message of the book of Ecclesiastes is not that life is vain or futile, but rather that life is transient and impermanent. Ecclesiastes is a guidebook to living without permanence and security while still finding joy in living.1 So when Jesus includes the phrase “Eat, drink and be merry” in his parable, he drops a clue that says “dig here for treasure.”

There is nothing wrong with abundance. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being wealthy. The farmer got into deep water when he thought he could hold on to his bounty and it would insure that his life would unfold in pleasant ways. He put his trust in his wealth for his well being. But, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, Death is the great leveler: rich and poor, powerful and powerless, wise and foolish, we all fear the advent of death because it destroys our illusions of permanence.2

So, perhaps Jesus wanted his friends to know that nothing is permanent – wanted them not to get too attached to things the way they are. Even his life among them was not permanent. Maybe he wanted them to know that it was the abundant grace of God that would keep their lives full and rich. But the grace of God cannot be stored up against the future either. It flows out to us beyond all measure, filling us with a sense of well-being, guiding us when we need it, healing us when we need it – -but it is continually moving – – never the same from moment to moment – never the same from person to person. We cannot save it up for the future. If we try to keep it for ourselves, it sort of shrivels and dies. The power of God’s love is often referred to as “Living Water” – – living water is water that moves – a downpour of rain – the oceans – the rivers –Jesus referred to himself as Living Water and reminded the woman at the well that whoever drank from him would never be thirsty again. We are the recipients of all that flowing, moving, thirst – quenching grace. Through the life and teaching of Jesus, God pours forth abundant spiritual wealth. We cannot contain it. We cannot limit it. We cannot store it up for the future. Indeed, we have to continually empty our barns. We pay it forward. For God’s love to work in the world, it has to reach us. We have to receive it. We need to let it flow through us. We extend generosity and hospitality to others out of our abundance. We offer compassion in place of judgment. We seek justice in place of power. When we obstruct the flow of grace – – perhaps like a farmer storing up his abundance in his barns instead of sharing it with others, we die. Not physically, perhaps – – but our spirits shrivel and dry up. We become smaller – dehydrated, if you will – than we are meant to be.

With the writer of Ecclesiastes, at the communion table, we come and share together in the symbols of the abundant, Life-giving, Life-saving generosity of God through Jesus. We eat – and we drink – and we are surely called to be joyful and merry, even in the face of all that is imperfect in the world. Our story ends differently from that of the rich farmer. When we share the abundance, we do indeed have life. Jesus said “I have come that you may have life and that your life may be abundant.” In communion, the barn doors are open wide – and all who want to come are welcome to join the party. May it always be so.

1 Ecclesiastes Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro , Skylight Paths Publishing Woodstock, Vermont, 2010 p.2

2 Shapiro, p. 74

WHEN YOU PRAY…July 26, 2015

“When you pray….”

Luke 11: 1-13

Chilmark Community Church

July 26, 2015

Vicky Hanjian

Jesus’ disciples said: “Lord, teach us to pray” – – and Jesus gave them a prayer that has sustained and nurtured human beings for 2000 years. It is so much a part of the fiber of our being that we take it for granted. For many of us, it was the first prayer we were taught as young children. For many years it was part of the “morning exercises” in the schools that people of my generation attended. As I worked my way through it for this morning’s sermon, I discovered that each line is a powerful prayer all by itself, so that is how we’ll look at it together.

When Jesus prayed this prayer himself, he addressed God personally. He would have used the word “Avi” – – an intimate address which means “my father” – – we have received the prayer using the word “avinu” – – which means “our Father” – -so one of the things that we notice is that right from the first words, the Lord’s Prayer establishes incredibly intimate, spiritual relationships – not just between us and God, but between us as siblings –as children of God. When we pray “Our Father…. we acknowledge that we are beloved children of the Holy One – – and that we are beloved together in the sight of God. If we only focused this interrelatedness between us and God and between each other – – it would be enough of a prayer to change the world. As children of the Holy One we carry within us our Divine Parent’s attributes of compassion, justice, loving – kindness, forgiveness, grace and mercy as part of what it means to be most truly human. Life fully lived as children of God could transform creation.

Which art in heaven”….. reminds us that while we do indeed embody the attributes of God in our physical nature, we are not all there is. While the Holy is immanent and dwells within us and among us, (God has pitched a tent in our midst) God is also transcendent – – un-nameable – – and un-tameable – – elusive – -often hidden – – a God who must be sought out. While God loves us as a parent loves a precious child, God cannot be domesticated.

So – when we pray “hallowed be thy name” – – we enter a kind of mystery.

Both the Old Testament and ancient Jewish literature indicate that God’s name is sanctified, made holy, by the way in which God’s people act. There is a story in the Book of Numbers where God instructs Moses to speak to the rock to provide water for the children of Israel because they are thirsty. Moses, however, struck the rock causing water to issue forth. The Lord responded to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me, you did not treat me as holy, before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore, you will not enter with this assembly into the land that I gave to them.” Moses and Aaron by their lack of trust and their disobedience failed to sanctify God; we can assume, then, that their obedience would have sanctified the name of God. God’s name is sanctified, honored and made holy when we live out the command to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength – – and love our neighbor as ourselves. We either magnify God’s name – make it holy – or we profane it – make it unholy – by the way we live in the world.

All of the people who call upon the name of God, – – -Christians, – – Muslims, – – Jews and all the variations within those broad categories – -we all have a pretty spotty record when it comes to “hallowed be thy name” – – our history together has often been a history of suspicion, misunderstanding, hatred, violence, unwillingness to forgive – -all of which make the name of God unholy. If this were the only line of the prayer and we prayed it with the intention of fulfilling it – – this prayer too could change the world.

Just in case we do not yet get the point, Jesus adds another line – – “thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – – – John Dominic Crossan calls this a radically subversive prayer. At the time the prayer was recorded Rome was the kingdom and Caesar was god. The prayer undermines the power and authority of Caesar. It shifts the power and the glory to the One who transcends political power. The willingness to pray “thy kingdom come” sustained the Jewish community that evolved around Jesus and would eventually become the early church. It gave our ancestors hope. Caesars have come and gone in every age over the last 2000 years – – the prayer for God’s kingdom on earth continues….. and it must not stop….. The headlines remind us daily that the Caesars continue to demand allegiance and obedience. They usurp power over human life that belongs only to God. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done is a prayer of hope in the face of the worst that can happen. We continue to pray it because we still await the fullness of God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace to prevail.

With the next line, it is as though Jesus knew that we, as his followers, might lose hope – – get discouraged – – maybe even lose our way – – trying to live faithfully in a world that is so challenging. On every side we are confronted by hunger, homelessness, violence, racism, destruction of human life, political discord, aggression – – – only if we are sound asleep can we escape from so much of what the world hands us every day. Often a sense of powerlessness and even hopelessness may creep in. And indeed, at times we really do simply need to turn it off – or at the very least turn down the volume. Jesus says “pray this way… Give us this day our daily bread…” the words are reminiscent of the near starvation of Israel in the wilderness – – and the Holy One’s grace in providing manna for them to eat. They were instructed that they should gather just enough for the needs of the day. They were not to gather any more than that because if they tried to keep it over night it would get moldy and rot. The idea is that Israel was to learn to trust that they would be given exactly what they needed to get through the day – no more – and no less.

This simple line may well be the most challenging one spiritually. Jesus invites us to be open to trusting that when we open ourselves in prayer, we will receive everything we need for the journey. It is challenging because it implies that we need to do something that we don’t always do very well – – – and that is that we have to LISTEN. This daily bread is what sustained Jesus during his own time in the wilderness. It is what he fed on in those quiet moments that he stole out of his busy days of teaching and healing. He made time for manna. He went into the quiet recesses of his inner sanctuary where he could listen for the Divine Flow of love and wisdom and power and direction and guidance and strength that sustained him. When we pray “give us this day our daily bread” we need to stop and spend time listening for the silent voice of God so that we can receive the bread as it comes.

And then we come to “forgive us our debts or our trespasses as we forgive our debtors or those who trespass against us.” Two ancient verses from the Hebrew Scriptures inform this part of the prayer: “you shall love the Lord your God” and “you shall love your neighbor who is like you – -you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Early in Genesis, we learn that God created humankind in God’s own image. Whether we like it or not, we are all bearers of the image of God. When we wound each other, when our relationships are broken, we wound God. We cannot get any closer with God than we are with each other. It is as though God might be saying to us: ‘If you love your neighbor, I can be relied upon to be fully available and present to you. But if you do not love your neighbor, if you cannot forgive one another, then you will feel my absence and separation.’

Our ability to forgive one another is directly linked with our relationship with God. When we are not able to forgive one another, our relationship with God is fractured. God loves not only us, but also the person with whom we are in conflict. So – when we pray “forgive us as we forgive others” – – there is a lot more at stake than meets the eye.

Perhaps one of the more difficult parts of this prayer is the line “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” – – – What are we to do with that?

I want to suggest that this line of the Lord’s Prayer is a powerful call to personal responsibility for how we conduct our lives. We humans embody and are energized by two conflicting centers in our personalities – we come into the world with them as basic equipment that carries a lifetime guarantee. Jesus knew them as “the inclination to evil” and the “inclination to good”. There is no moral judgment attached to either inclination –they simply are what is. We have the ability to think and speak and act from either center – either from the needs of our ego – or from the desires of the Spirit. Both are necessary for survival. Our job as followers of the Way is to keep them in balance and make the choice for the movement of the Holy Spirit as often as we can. When we are operating solely from our most self centered, selfish inclinations, we have the capacity to conceal the beauty of God. When we operate from our selfless, generous side – we have the capacity to reveal God. What Jesus is saying when he says “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” is that we can pray that every choice and every action in our lives might reveal God rather than conceal God. I don’t know about you, but this is a part of the prayer that I have to pray not only every day – but from moment to moment every day. Just taking on the work of personal responsibility for every word that comes out of my mouth is a daunting endeavor. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil……

The prayer ends there. The doxology that was added on to the end of the prayer later is: “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory – -forever – – – A kingdom that already is and a kingdom that is not yet. So – when we pray it together or individually we become co-creators with God. By joining ourselves to God through the prayer Jesus taught, by intentionally shaping our lives to conform to the prayer, we become participants in the building of God’s realm here on earth.

May The Holy One help us to be the prayer that we pray. AMEN

A Prayer for our church in summer

Spirit of the Living God, be with our kaleidoscopic little church,.  We are many faceted and multi-shaped, with fragments that focus and focus again, always in different patterns as we turn to the light of Your Presence.  Help us to love those patterns and the turning, and to trust in the beauty of the wholeness we yearn for.  Help us to find our wholeness in you.  AMEN

Breaking the Cycle July 12,1015 by Vicky Hanjian

Context for 2 Chronicles 28: 8-15

The history of the people called Israel is pretty splintered and tortuous. For generations they were a loose conglomeration of twelve different tribes descending from Jacob the patriarch of Jacob’s Ladder fame. The great King David managed to pull the 12 tribes of Israel together during his reign and unite them into a more orderly. David’s son Solomon continued the rule. But after Solomon died, the United Monarchy split into two independent states. This is when the Samaritan people come into being. The tribes organized geographically – – The Samaritans in the north and the Tribes of Judah in the south – – and they became bitter enemies. Because most of our story comes down to us through the chroniclers of The Tribes of Judah, we get a pretty negative picture of the Samaritans – murderers, rapists, plunderers. In addition to the deep political rift, the Samaritans and Jews were deeply divided about which group had the true faith and which group were the heretics.

We enter the story through the vignette that Jim will read from 2 Chronicles.

 

CHILMARK COMMUNITY CHURCH

BREAKING THE CYCLE”

2 Chronicles 28:8-15

Luke 10:25-37

Vicky Hanjian

July 12, 2015

A lawyer comes to Jesus and wants to know what he has to do to obtain eternal life. He questions Jesus in order to test him. The lawyer asks a question that has no answer. Jewish belief affirms that eternal life is a gift freely given by God – neither the lawyer nor anyone else has to figure out how to obtain it.

So, never one to give easy answers, Jesus answers the question with another question: “What is written in the law – what do you read there?” The very knowledgeable lawyer quotes a combination of verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus on the love of God and the love of neighbor: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind;1 and your neighbor as yourself.2 – – This satisfies Jesus and he affirms the lawyer. Your answer is a good one – – fulfill these two commandments and you will indeed live” – – Jesus might have added that if you do just this much, you will live abundantly.

But the lawyer has an agenda – the verse says he wants to justify himself –he wants to look good in his own eyes. So he pushes Jesus a little further – ahhh – I must love my neighbor as myself – – but who IS my neighbor? Jesus answers with a story.

We are familiar with the narrative – a traveler walking along a notoriously dangerous road – gets beaten and robbed by armed and dangerous criminals and is left for dead at the side of the road. People walk by. There are dozens of interpretations about the motivations of the priest and the Levite and the reasons why they both pass by on the other side of the road. Over centuries of translation and interpretation, the parable has been overlaid with stereotypes – the most common one being that the priest had to stay ritually pure in order to perform his ceremonies in the temple and so could not risk contaminating himself if the man were dead. The Levite had to attend to his tasks involving the care of the temple precincts – and also could not risk contamination. Amy Jill Levine, in her book Short Stories By Jesus points out the flaw in these arguments that would excuse the priest and the Levite – -First, they were both headed down to Jericho away from the temple in Jerusalem. Maintaining ritual cleanliness was not an issue. They were headed away from the temple, not toward it. Second, Jewish law places the highest priority on the care of the dead.

Neither Jesus nor Luke gives the priest or the Levite any excuse for passing by. Indeed, there is no acceptable excuse. Their responsibility was to save a life, and they failed. Saving a life is so important that Jewish law mandates that it override every other concern – including keeping the Sabbath. If the man had, indeed, died, their responsibility was to bury the corpse. They failed here as well.3

Levine cites Martin Luther King Jr. as having the best explanation for why the priest and the Levite refused to help the man lying in the ditch. King preached this: I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid….and so the first question the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ Whatever the motives of the priest and the Levite, King is correct. They, like the lawyer, thought only about themselves, not the man in the ditch.4

Jesus is a master story teller. He uses the familiar device of the formula of three. It’s exemplified in a joke or story that begins with “a minister, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar”…. If the joke starts out with “a minister, and a priest – – the third person in the trilogy is expected to be the rabbi. We are primed to hear that.

Jesus tells a story that includes a priest and Levite. In Israelite story telling the formula of three anticipates that the third party is always an Israelite – – so a story might begin with “a priest, a Levite and an Israelite walk into a bar”…. (That wouldn’t happen – but you get the point). People listening to the story would be primed to expect that if a story included a priest and a Levite, it would also include an Israelite.

Jesus’ listeners would have been jarred by the lack of compassion on the part of the priest and the Levite. They would have been expecting the third person to be an Israelite – an Israelite would be the one who stopped to help.

But, this is a parable – – and parables are quirky and designed to make us think.

Instead of an Israelite being the third person – – the one who stops to help is a Samaritan. As AJ Levine puts it: “In modern terms, this would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.”5 Samaritans, age old enemies of the Jews were hated and feared and reviled.

There is a significant shift in the story as the Samaritan is introduced. Jesus’ words about the priest and the Levite are quite sparse. But a lot of attention is given to the Samaritan. “The robbers steal and wound, while the Samaritan tends with his own goods. The bandits leave the man half dead, while the Samaritan returns him to life. Whereas the priest and the Levite go out of their way to avoid the victim the Samaritan literally goes up to him and shows him compassion.

As we heard in the passage that Jim read from 2 Chronicles, the Samaritans are not the good guys. They are to be understood as the enemy – as the oppressor. They were not a benevolent people. “Jewish listeners hearing Jesus might balk at the idea of receiving aid from a Samaritan. They might have thought ‘I’d rather die than acknowledge that someone from that group saved me.’ ”

And yet – – it is the Samaritan who gets involved. What makes him different?

The parable tells us “But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him; and when he saw him he was moved with pity. He went to him.

He was moved with pity and he went to him……..the phraseology is reminiscent of the way in which God speaks to Moses way back in the early chapters of Exodus when God says to Moses: “I have seen the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…I know their suffering and I have come down to deliver them out of Egypt…”6 God sees and hears and knows and acts to save God’s people. This is good news.

In 2 Chronicles we heard that terrible warfare had taken place. 200,000 wives and sons and daughters from the tribes of Judah –southern Israel – were taken by the Samaritans. To put that in perspective, that is about twice the summer population of Martha’s Vineyard at the height of the season. The age old trilogy of raping, pillaging and plundering of the Southern tribes of Judah had happened.

The Samaritan military carried back their human and material booty to the northern regions of Samaria. Without warning, the prophet, Oded jumps into the post battle celebration. Speaking in the name of God he says to the Samaritan army, ”yeah – -God was angry with the tribes of Judah –that’s why you were able to win the battle against them – – but you have really over done it – -you slaughtered them with such rage that it reached the heavens – – now it is YOU who are guilty of sinning against God. Now listen to me! Send back the prisoners you have taken.”

The leaders of Samaria don’t want to be guilty before God – they know what they have done was wrong. Not only do they instruct the soldiers to give up their prisoners – they see to it that the prisoners are clothed, and fed, that they have sandals for their feet, that they are soothed with healing balm for their wounds. The weakest ones are placed on donkeys and the soldiers escort them all back home to their fellow Israelites in Jericho. The behavior of the earlier Samaritans

sets the story line for the parable that Jesus spoke. The similarities are remarkable given that the stories are recorded more than 800 years apart in time.

Parables are designed to jar us into a new way of seeing things. Jesus’s short story invites us to examine our stereotypes – – the ways in which we characterize whole groups of people as though everyone in a particular group is the same as every other one. The world is rife with stereotyping. White people stereotype people of color. Northerners stereotype southerners. Protestants stereotype Roman Catholics. Christians stereotype Jews. Jews stereotype Europeans . . The stereotypes are most often negative and the human connection is severely damaged.

The parable was jarring for Jesus’ listeners. For them, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. So – why did Jesus tell this story? Is it possible that he wanted his followers to broaden their notion of what humanity is about? Was he calling them and us to see the humanity of the people we stereotype and fear?

It is a very current issue for as we continue confront the tragedies that have consumed the headlines over the last year as this country continues to struggle with legacy of racism that tests us on a daily basis.

At the end of the parable, Jesus returns to the lawyer this way: ”Which of the three men was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

In parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus confronts us with a paradox that stretches us almost to the breaking point. He makes the treacherous enemy the instrument of healing and reconciliation. Indeed, the hated and reviled Samaritan fulfills the attributes of a loving and compassionate and healing God. It happens in 2 Chronicles – -it happens in Luke – – and both stories are a recapitulation of God’s energetic declaration of love for God’s people as the birth pangs of liberation from Egypt begin.

The combined stories have been told for over three thousand years. Stories witnessing to the passionate desire of God to break the cycle of violence and bondage, hatred and revenge that has afflicted God’s people from the beginning creation.

At the end of the parable, Jesus turns to us, standing in the lawyer’s shoes and asks “Who was the neighbor to this man?” With the lawyer, we get it. We know it’s “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says very clearly “Go and do likewise.” Sounds like marching orders to me. AMEN

1 Deuteronomy 6:5

2 Leviticus 19:18

3 SHORT STORIES BY JESUS: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy Jill Levine, HarperOne, NY, 2014. p.94

4 MLK Jr. cited by A.J. Levine p.94

5 Levine p.95

6 Exodus 3:7,8

Becoming Bread 7/5/15

Becoming Bread1

John 6:48-59

Chilmark Community Church

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

July 5,2015

I am the bread of life.” “I am the living bread.” Familiar words for sure. So familiar that we don’t often stop to ask ourselves “What did he mean by that?” This morning’s sermon will focus on a possible meaning – not the only one by any means – – perhaps just one more way, among many, to think about what Jesus meant.

I have a friend who used to be a professional baker. Every night she would enter her bakery kitchen to begin the bread making process.

A huge Hobart mixer stood on the floor at one end of the kitchen. The bowl of the mixer was big enough to bathe in.

The flour went in the bowl by the pound rather than by the cup. When a recipe called for eggs, they went in by the dozen rather than one or two at a time. The Hobart did the heavy work of kneading the mixture into a thick, sturdy dough. The dough was then transferred into a large 5 gallon bucket with a loose fitting lid to raise in the refrigerator overnight.

I happened to stop in early one morning as the dough was coming out of the fridge. After a slow rise overnight, the dough had puffed up and over the top of the bucket and was wearing the bucket lid like a hat. There was a hint of plump white arms reaching out and over the rim of the bucket – – all very reminiscent of the Pillsbury Doughboy. As my friend and I talked about the way she worked with the dough to get it to rise properly, I couldn’t help noticing that she was describing a relationship that required attentiveness on her part. Bread dough has a life of its own. There were days when the rising dough would kind of pull her along and she would just hope that she could keep up with it. On other days she would have to shepherd the dough along to get it to rise properly. The bread was a living organism. Watching my friend bake bread was watching a living relationship in action.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven…whoever eats this bread will live forever…and the bread I will give for the world is my flesh.” As he talked about offering his flesh and blood, some people heard his words literally and were deeply disturbed and angry about what they thought they heard. Jewish practice forbids the consumption of meat with the blood still in it. Those who heard Jesus’ words with a literal mind put early followers of Jesus on the defensive against what some were certain was a pagan religious practice. But we have the ability take a step back a little from the literal image of Jesus offering his flesh and blood, and what we discover is that Jesus was offering was a way of entering into relationship – – a very deep and intimate relationship with himself – indeed a relationship so intimate that it might be compared to consuming him and allowing him to fill us the way a good loaf of homemade bread fills us – – allowing him to enter us through our hearts, to nourish our minds and enliven our souls. Through the metaphor of bread, Jesus taught about the kind of relationship he wanted with and for his friends and followers.

I think his invitation to partake of him as Living Bread frightened some of the people who heard him. Sometimes it frightens me!! I do not know where my life will go when I allow myself to enter into this relationship – if I allow the Living Christ to course through my veins, and shape my thinking and my doing and my being. Who would I become? Who would you become? What might we become together as the body of Christ? In my former parish in NJ, there were a lot of children in the congregation. Our Methodist custom is to invite everyone to the communion table, regardless of age or level of understanding or connection with the church. And so the children and adults would come together for the sacrament. We usually had a whole loaf of bread that I would break in half. I would offer the bread to each person to take however much or little they wanted. We received communion by intinction – each person would dip their piece of bread in the common communion cup and then consume it.

The adults were always very polite and careful and correct. Most would break off a tiny piece so they would not drop any crumbs on the carpet. They would barely touch the bread to the juice in the chalice so they could get it to their mouths without dripping any on their clothing or on the floor. Month after month one woman explained to me that she only took the tiniest crumb from the crust because that was all she deserved. But the children….the children would dig their small hands deep into the flesh of the loaf – – thoroughly embarrassing their parents by the large pieces they took. They would plunge the whole piece into the chalice and relish the dripping bread as they put it into their mouths. More than once I came away from the sacrament with grape juice stains on my robe…….But the children had intuitively grasped the meaning of Jesus’ intent……and they wanted as much as they could get. When the service was over, they would often crowd around the communion steward as she cleared away the bread and the cup and they would jostle each other for more. The children themselves have become an eloquent metaphor for what Jesus was offering when he offered himself as Living Bread – – a rich, generous extravagant offering of his life to be lived in each of us.

Back to my baker friend. There were times when I walked into the bakery just as the bread was coming out of the oven. When the bread was cool enough to handle, out would come a tub of butter and some good cheese. We would break off slabs of warm bread and we would eat and share a few moments of our life journey together. We would laugh – – sometimes we would cry – – we would offer each other strength and encouragement and support for whatever we needed to accomplish that day. The sharing of bread, the sharing in our love for one another, the sharing of our respective journeys, always sent me back into my day refreshed, renewed and joyful. My friend no longer bakes professionally and those yeasty, buttery moments are a thing of the past. But the memory of those early morning feasts still sustains me. In the mystery of shared bread, we had become bread for one another.

The mystery of shared bread. Jesus offered himself as bread for our lives so that we might become bread for one another. But part of the mystery is we do not feed on the bread of Christ for ourselves alone. We receive the gift of bread in community so that we might be nurtured and sustained and strengthened for the purpose of becoming bread for others. This is what “church” is about – – it is about coming together to find strength and nourishment for ourselves so that we can become strength and nourishment for others. This is not a romantic notion. Sometimes it can be really messy – just as literally breaking bread can be messy. It has to do with accepting and caring for and supporting each other – listening with sensitive care – mourning with each other – – loving without condition – being Christ-the-bread for one another. In a small church in the center of a small community, we actually know quite a lot about how this works. It isn’t glamorous. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience and forbearance. It isn’t even always pleasant – but being bread for each other – – sharing life with each other is what we are called to do. It’s that simple – – – and it is that mysterious.

In her little book entitled “Becoming Bread” Gunilla Norris has written these words: We are united through sharing…our lives are made new…meaningful. “Take. Eat. This is my body,” said Jesus when he broke bread at the last supper. Then he gave his life for us. Behind all communion is the knowledge that we must give our lives to each other, for each other. And when we do, we can mourn, we can trust, we can forgive, we can treasure, we can even face our deaths. In sharing, the meaning of our lives is given back to God. The One who gives. The One who receives. The One who is.2

As we share in the sacrament of communion today, may the symbols of the bread and the cup confront us with the mystery of the invitation to intimate relationship with the Living Christ….and may the symbols challenge us to become living bread for one another. Amen.

1 From the title of the book Becoming Bread by Gunilla Norris Bell Tower New York 1993

2 Norris Becoming Bread p. 67

“Walking by Faith!”

“Walking by Faith!”

Joshua 3:7-17 / Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

 

When I was a high school student, I went on a Summer vacation with my friends. We went to a Mountain called Odaesan which was one of the most beautiful mountains in Korea. There were many valleys in the mountain and one of them seemed perfect to ride an inflatable boat I had. So, one of my friends and I went up along the valley and we stopped at some point because there was a water fall in front of us. We thought that was a good starting point for the ride. It was very close to the fall. I sat in the front of the boat and my friend was supposed to push the boat forward and to jump in it to seat in the back of the boat. But he made a mistake. Instead of pushing forward, he pushed down and jumped in the boat and the boat was capsized. That was the moment that I thought I might die. I was stuck under the fall and at the bottom of the water. The power of the fall was so strong that I couldn’t move at all. On the bottom of the river, I lost my mind and went completely insane. I frantically tried to move my body but it didn’t work. I don’t know how long I was there. Finally, I felt I had no energy to do anything and completely relaxed and prayed, “God, help me!!”

 

Right after that, I felt my body shooting out of the water. I was alive. Out of the water, I saw my friend was happy to see me. He thought he lost me. That day, I learned lessons from the accident. First, do not put your boat in too close to a water fall. Second, don’t push the inflatable boat down and jump in it. It would be capsized. More than those lessons, I have never forgotten the feeling I had from the accident. It gave me a strong message about my relationship with God. When I tried to save myself, it didn’t work but when I left myself to God, I could experience the grace of God saving me from trouble.

 

This experience is one of my Christian formative experiences in my life and this experience tells me how weak we sometimes are before challenges. Have you had any experience like that, the experience that you are not able to cope. How have God worked for you?

 

In today’s Scripture, we can see the people of God who face the challenge they cannot cope and how God works for them in the challenge. Let us take a look at the text. We finally see a pivotal moment in life of the Israelites. Their journey in the wilderness is almost over. They are standing on the eastern shore of the Jordan River looking across to the Promised Land where milk and honey are flowing. The goal of so many years in the wilderness is in sight. God, who called Israel out of Egypt, has been faithful. Even though their faith in God has been up and down in the wilderness, they now face the last step to get to the Promised Land.

 

Can you imagine how they were emotionally touched? They had been through tough challenges in the Wilderness. They had lost parents and family members. These people are not the same people who escaped from Egypt. The men and women who began the journey from slavery into freedom had been buried in the wilderness. The ones who stand on the bank of the Jordan are their sons and daughters, granddaughters and grandsons. Confronting the Jordan River, they might say, “Thank God, finally, we are here!”

 

However, their challenges aren’t over yet. At this last moment of their journey, they face a challenge which threatens their lives. As their parents and grandparents faced the Red Sea, they are being confronted by the Jordan River. According to the Scripture, the river is flowing strongly from the rains of the harvest season (v. 15). They cannot wade very far into the water for fear of being swept away and drowned. It is very dangerous. “God led us into the wilderness and now the Jordan River. We all will be dead soon.” They might say like that. After being happy, they are now discouraged.

 

Now that we know the Israelites face the Jordan River, I would like to invite you to think of what happened at the beginning of the wilderness wanderings. Moses and the Israelites were blocked by the Red Sea. Deep water was before them and Pharaoh’s armies were behind them. All seemed lost. There was nothing they could do to get themselves out of the situation.

However, at that moment, God intervened. That was the moment the Israelites witnessed God’s presence and power, protecting and sustaining them. The waters were parted on the left and on the right. The people crossed on dry ground and escaped Pharaoh’s wrath. God saved the people as they began their Exodus journey.

Forty years later, the people, once again, find their way impeded by water. This time it is not the quiet waters of the Red Sea. It is the raging current of the Jordan River. If the people are going to cross, they, once again, will need to see the hand of God.

The good news in this story is that God, once again, intervenes. Joshua, the new leader of the people, is told to command the priests to pick up the Ark of the Covenant which contains the ten Commandment tablets and to wade into the raging waters. The priests obey with the faith in God. As long as the priests stand in the river bed, the waters stop flowing. When all of the people are across and the priests ascend the west bank into the Promised Land, the waters resume their course. Yes! God intervenes in their trouble.

This story leads us into another key message in today’s sermon. Not only does God intervene and act for God’s people, but the people also walk by faith. Based on this story, we can draw a picture of the scene in which there are raging water and the people walking by faith. Of course, they might tremble. But they are walking in faith that God will be with them. God intervenes in the life of God’s people and strengthen them to be able to walk through the challenges.

 

Let me wrap up today’s sermon with the following text, Psalm 107:1-6 which expreses my feeling when I escaped the water fall. “Give thanks to the LORD, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever… Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town… Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and the Lord delivered them from their distress.”

We as well as our family, friends, and neighbors have challenges like the Red Sea and Jordan River. We have loneliness, bad habits, uncertainty about the future, addictions, financial strains, and physical pains. You name it. We feel so small before the vastness of the Red Sea and the turbulence of the Jordan River. But here is the good news. God intervenes and makes us able to walk through. The Holy Spirit working within us speaks to us, “Trust me, lean on me. Everything will be alright!” With the power of the Holy Spirit, we can humbly and faithfully walk with God. Our God is greater than the vastness of the Red Sea and the turbulence of the Jordan River.

Let us together be witnesses to the good news from God in our lives. Let us together be messengers sharing it with our neighbors. Let us together walk by faith.

 

Let us pray.

Loving God who intervenes in the midst of our lives and leads us with the power of the Holy Spirit, thank you for your message this morning. Help us believe that you are always with us. Bless us to faithfully walk by faith. And bless us to witness your power and presence in our lives and our neighbors’. In your name, we pray. Amen.

“What Image is in Your Heart!”

“What Image is in Your Heart!”

Matthew 22:15-22 // Matthew 22:34-40

 

Sometimes things happen. The things that push us back to our deepest questions and force us to answer. A marriage breakdown, loss of a job, financial strains, or physical pains, any of these can push us back to asking what it’s all about, what do those things mean in the course of our faith journey?
Two weeks ago, I shared with you the highest point in my life. My current life on the island with my family and Chilmark Church is a high point and I am so happy. After telling this to you, things bad happened which pushed me to my deepest questions and forced me to answer. Thursday before last, my wife had a car accident and the car was totaled. When she had this accident, I was in Rhode Island for a meeting with the Bishop. My wife was very upset and Sieun cried and cried. I couldn’t help them which made me so devastated. There were so much paper work to  deal with. It was hard. And two days after the accident, we went to Westport to meet friends as scheduled and we went to a mall to buy some stuff. At the mall, my wife’s handbag was stolen. She lost everything, a smart phone, credit cards, cash and more. My wife and I were sad. And there was an old car available for my family in Boston. We went to Boston to pick up the car this Wednesday. The car didn’t work and I did everything to fix it for two days but nothing worked. It was raining hard and I was like a wet dog frantically running around. In a week, these things happened. I was very busy taking care of everything and felt burdened with a huge financial loss and physical and emotional stress. I was not happy.

 

All of a sudden, this question came to me, “Are you still happy and sure that now is your highest point in your life?” I took this question as a test. It doesn’t necessarily mean that God always tests people with challenges. I, as a pastor, took that as a test based on my faith in God. While preparing this sermon, I have had a moment to answer the question. As this sermon goes by, I hope you can figure my answer out.

 

When we look at our lives, we can say that there have been many tests. Some of them are on going. Likewise, Jesus got through tough tests in his life. Some of the tests came from the religious leaders. One of them tested Jesus with this question, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” The Jews had over 600 hundred laws for their religious practices. And they might expect Jesus would pick one of them. But Jesus didn’t pick one in the laws they were following. Instead, Jesus gave them two, which are equally important in the way of life. “Love your God and Love your neighbors.”

 

Before this, Jesus had other test from the Pharisees. In Matthew 22, some Pharisees lay out a trap by asking Jesus whether it is right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar. The Pharisees knew this was a very tough question. If Jesus says no, he risks committing a political crime instigating people not to pay taxes. If he says yes, he could get into trouble with the religious leaders because they believed that the Roman Empire was such a great enemy and God would conquer the Empire sooner or later. Also, for the first century Jews, paying taxes to the Roman Empire was a way to support their own oppression. That is, paying taxes to the Roman was an act of shame.

Either way, the Pharisees knew, the power of Jesus will be deflated once Jesus says no to the Roman or yes to the Jews.

Jesus knew their evil intent and said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying tax.’

They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.

Then Jesus said, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’

The Pharisees were amazed by this answer and left him and went away. The trap they set up didn’t work.

 

In this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, I found my answer to my question. “Give back to God what is God’s.”
As I told you about my wife’s car accident when I was in Rhode Island, I was devastated. But I got great help from Tim, Pam, Arlene, Ann and neighbors. I was relieved by their help. Without their help, we would be in a huge trouble. My wife and I felt deep care and support which made us feel secure. And here comes the point.

 

Methodists and other Christian groups traditionally believe that human beings cannot do good without God, due to the human’s nature inclined to do evil. But the Holy Spirit guides and leads us to stand against evil things and to do good things. It has been controversial but this has been accepted as one of the core theological doctrines.

 

Based on this perspective, the deep care, concern and support my family and I got definitely came from God, the Spirit working within those people. That is, it was God’s care, concern, and support that took care of my family. What I got was God’s love.

 

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Give back to God what is God’s.” What is that? I believe it is love. Even though my family has been in trouble, I have been full of God’s love and therefore full of passion to give it back to God. Moreover, no one got hurt which made me more thankful.

 

Jesus asked this question to the Pharisees in Matthew 22, “Whose image is on the coin?” This question leads me into this question, “Whose image is in our hearts? From Jesus’ teaching and life, we can surely say that it is the image of God and the image of love. When this image is in our hearts, the two commandments will be “loving God and loving neighbors.”

I pray we all humbly walk with the Holy Spirit who is continually restoring the image of God in our hearts.

 

Let us pray

Loving God, thank you for gathering us here to worship and praise you. And we thank you for the abundant gift in our live, love. We thank you for the steadfast signs of your loving presence in our lives and world. And now we ask you to bless us to fill your love in our hearts and share it with one another. In your holiest name, we pray. Amen.

 

The Spirit of God Within Us (02/09/2014)

The Spirit of God within Us

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In his autobiography, Man and Rubber, Harvey Firestone tells an interesting little story which concerns Henry Ford, who was a close personal friend of Mr. Firestone.
Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Mr. Ford, and Mr. Firestone were on one of their summer camping trips, traveling by automobile. They were camped one evening near the road. They noticed a man walking briskly down the road toward them. On approaching the group he said, “Gentlemen, I am in trouble up the road about a mile. I am on my way to an important engagement, and my car has stalled. It absolutely refuses to go. I have tried everything I know to do, with no results. Do any of you men know anything about a Ford?”
Mr. Firestone spoke up. Pointing to Mr. Ford, he said, “That old fellow over there knows quite a bit about a Ford car.”
“Will you come and help me?” the man asked pleadingly.
“With pleasure,” Mr. Ford replied.
Mr. Ford started up his own Model T Ford which he happened to be driving, and he and the stranger drove back to the stalled car. In a few minutes he had the man’s Ford purring, and both Mr. Ford and the stranger were happy about it.
“How much do I owe you?” asked the man, taking out his wallet.
“Nothing at all,” cheerfully replied the wealthy automobile manufacturer. “It has given me real pleasure to be of some assistance.”
“It is worth a lot to me to be able to get on my way. And you have fixed my car so it runs better than it ever ran before.” I would like to show you that I appreciate what you have done for me.”
“It is sufficient reward for me to be able to be of some help to you.” Mr. Ford said again.
“I certainly do thank you,” the man said. “And do you mind if I say this? If I knew as much about an automobile as you know, I would not be riding around in a thing like that.” He pointed to Mr. Ford’s model T.
Mr. Ford drove back to his friends and told the story, and they all had a hearty laugh. (From God’s Minutes: A Classic Collection of Short Inspirational Stories, p. 18-20).

Mr. Ford made his cars and knew everything about them. This true story today reminds us that God creates us and knows everything about us. Based on this story, I would like to continue this sermon with the same theme as last Sunday.

As we saw last week, the “wisdom” of which Paul speaks is not identical with what we today might call philosophical, theological, or academic thinking. In I Corinthians 1, Paul says, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Today’s text is the next part of Paul’s letter. Paul says,
“My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

In this verse, Paul clearly says that he does not use wise and persuasive words for preaching to the Corinthians. Rather, he preaches with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. It is because as Paul says in verse 11, “No one comprehends what is truly God’s wisdom except the Spirit of God.”

God’s wisdom is not what we can have with our worldly wisdom. We can only understand it with the power of God’s Spirit. Now given that we can understand God’s wisdom with the Spirit of God, the first thing that we need to know is that we have received the Spirit of God. Many biblical scholars and even many Christians believe that when God created us, God gave us the Spirit of God. According to Genesis 2: 7, God breathed into human’s nostrils the breath of life. By the breath of life, it means the Spirit of God.

We all have the Spirit of God, the source to understand God’s wisdom. So, Paul says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”

With the faith that we have the Spirit of God, we need to speak about God’s wisdom in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit. In Paul’s time, before or later, many of the Greek philosophers were part deep thinker and part popular entertainer whose polished oratory, eloquence, and wisdom dazzled their audiences. Paul also thoroughly trained for those skills under Gamaliel who held a reputation in the Mishnah for being one of the greatest teachers in all the annals of Judaism. Paul, even though he was highly educated, uses the Spirit of God to understand God’s wisdom.

Today’s message is very simple. Seek the Spirit of God to understand God’s wisdom, not our worldly wisdom. Of course, to some extent, we might need to use our education and knowledge we have been taught in the world. I don’t mean that we should ignore our reasoning ability. We are people who are intellectual and reasoning. However, as Christians, we need to not to enthrone reason over the Spirit of God.

Once, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, said, “Christ doesn’t destroy reason; he dethrones it.” I agree with him. Jesus came to dethrone reason.
Paul dethroned reason and enthroned the Spirit of God and spoke God’s wisdom which was secret and hidden to those who were unspiritual and did not recognize the gifts of God’s Spirit. The Spirit of God reveals itself within us.

This is a situation in which we find ourselves today, not terribly different from Paul’s. We are in a world that is in desperate need of the truths of the gospel: the simple truths that love is of more value than hate, that peace is better than war, that we have a responsibility to one another as children of God. The truth that the God made fully known in Jesus Christ is a God of love and compassion, not a God of violence and vengeance. But these truths are, as Paul says in verse 1, the “mystery” of God. This mystery, in the way Paul uses the word, is not like a puzzle that we can master with enough perseverance.

This mystery, the good news of the gospel, is available to all. Any person who believes that God is at work in Jesus Christ receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, according to Paul, that enables them to clearly see this public mystery of God. It is hidden in plain sight, plainly visible to the eyes of faith but hidden from those who do not recognize the Spirit within them.

Let’s get back to the beginning story. Mr. Ford knew everything in his car. He knew how to fix his cars. But this truth was hidden from the young stranger. Of course, Mr. Ford did not introduce himself to the young man and he never had a chance to know of him. Unlike him, we have various sources to know/meet God: the Bible, hymns, spiritual books and this universe, and even we within whom the Spirit of God lives. We must be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit in us, learning from Jesus, growing in our understanding so that we may affirm with Paul that “we have the mind of Christ.” I pray you all would affirm this truth and fully live out your Christian lives with the Spirit of God.

Let us pray.
Gracious and holy God we give you thanks for this day in which we remember your Spirit is within us. We give you thanks for this great gift bestowed upon us by you. And now help us to live more fully with the power of your Spirit. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Go and Tell what You See and Hear! (12/15/2013)

121513

Matthew 11:2-11
Two young boys were spending the night at their grandparents’ house the week before Christmas. At bedtime, the two boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers. The younger one began praying at the top of his lungs:
“I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE…” “I PRAY FOR A NEW NINTENDO…”

His older brother leaned over, nudged him and said, “Why are you shouting? God isn’t deaf.” To which the little brother replied, “No, but our grandparents are!”

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. How has your journey been? Have you lived in peace last week? Have you hoped big enough to celebrate the coming of Jesus into your lives?
This morning we read Matthew 11 which starts with John’s question to Jesus. He was in prison and sent his disciples to ask this question, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
For me, it is very odd that John asked this question to Jesus. Who is John? According to the gospels, John was so convinced that Jesus was the one who was to come.

John was a prophet who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah whose sandals he was not fit to carry. He proclaimed that the Messiah will baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John, he tried to deter Jesus, saying Do you come to me for I need to be baptized by you? We can see that John realized the identity of Jesus as the Messiah for which all Israelites had waited.

However, in prison, John asked Jesus, “Give us more data so that we can believe in you!” Why did John send his disciples to ask this question? There are various explanations. Someone think that John might have a question, “if Jesus is really God’s messiah and good news from God for the world, why am I still suffering and living with pain in this dark prison?”

Or, someone might think that he was in prison and it could be the last moment for him. He might want to make sure that Jesus was the real Messiah. For him as well as the other Israelites, the coming of God’s Messiah was the greatest Good news at that time. John, as the forerunner who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, wanted to make sure he was correct.

Both explanations are reasonable. Right? But I have another answer to this question, an answer to drive us to look at ourselves in our life situation. Before answering the question, we need to see Jesus’ answer first. Jesus sent John’s disciples to answer the question as follows,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Do you see the point of Jesus’ answer?

John was in prison. It was dark and disconnected from the world. This figuratively means that John was blind and deaf in the prison. He couldn’t see Jesus’ ministry or hear any good news from him. The prison made John blind and deaf.

For John, Jesus sent witnesses who saw Jesus’ ministry and heard the good news from God, so that John could open his closed eyes and ears in the prison.
Without being able to see for himself, John could grasp the larger messianic meaning of Jesus’ ministry through his disciples. Jesus responds with a direct appeal to their senses, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
John’s question is the question for all of us, who live in the 21st century. We might live in prison where we cannot see the grace and love of Jesus and where we cannot hear the good news from him. We might live in prison where it is too hard for us to keep the good news in our minds. In the prison, our senses become dull.

The challenge for us in Advent is to allow Jesus to restore our senses, to have him open our eyes and ears, so that we can go and tell others what we hear and see. Admittedly, from the darkness of our prison cells, it can be hard for us to grasp the larger messianic meaning of Jesus’ ministry. That is the problem with the darkness; we lose our way, becoming blind and deaf to the fact that the kingdom of God is all around us.

Jesus is coming to light the darkness in order to open our eyes and ears as he did for John. We don’t know what happened to John immediately after this message. There is no record of it. However, we can guess what might have happened to John before he was killed. With the conviction and excitement that Jesus is the Messiah from God, he might have sent his disciples to the world so that they could spread what they saw and what they heard. Based on his life stories in the gospels, I can draw this picture. If my guess is right, then we can imagine our role as Christians in the Advent season.

Obviously, according to the message of Isaiah, the good news of Advent is that “the people who walked in darkenss have seen a great light.” It is the increasing light of Advent that can help us cut through holiday haze and prepare us to welcome the one who is coming.

Today, through the message of Matthew, God invites us to open our eyes to see the light of the world, so that we can see the true needs for ourselves as well as our neighbors. Thankfully, we come to church to see and to hear God’s good news. However, some of our neighbors do not. How can they open their eyes and ears to the good news from God?

Here is an interesting story. In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the music of a violinist. The overwhelming majority of the 1000 commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day. Except it wasn’t an ordinary day. The violinist wasn’t just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with people paying a hundred dollar per seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside of the contexts where we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?

I’d like to ask a similar question of the Washington Post author. Can our neighbors detect God only when God is surrounded by the walls of the church and the sound of the organ music? Can our neighbors recognize the beauty of living within God’s grace and love? I’m afraid that most can’t. This is why Jesus sent disciples and commanded them to tell what they saw and what they heard.

Let me wrap up today’s sermon with my experience as a student pastor of my last church. Every Christmas, we had a project to support the people in Nicaragua, especially the children who needed clean water. All the children in the church were engaged in making a few hundred cards. We sold them to the church members and raised some money. Then, we sent the money to UMCOR which is an organization of the United Methodist Church, which serve the poor around the world. They are well known as a group to send 100 % of donations to the mission place. The children took part in helping the poor. The church members took part in the mission by buying the cards. And UMCOR, the organization of the UMC, took part in directing the mission to share the light for the world.

The Chilmark Community Church is involved in this kind of mission. We have committed ourselves to our neighbors by fulfilling mission share ministry. We have supported our neighbors by hosting Flea Market and Lobster Rolls. We have served our neighbors through pizza night, soup supper and various ways. I am sure that God has nurtured and supported us so far. We need to give thanks to God for it. God will tell us, “Good job!”

Our mission in this community should be continued in order for us to remain as a church where God reigns. 2014 is around the corner. And we need to be ready to light the darkness. Let us together pray for the future missions of our church. Let us together take action. Jesus tells us, “Go and tell what you see and what you hear.

Let us pray. Dear Lord, we are here again to worship you. We give thanks to you for having supported our missions in 2013. We give thanks to you for having been with us. And now again, we pray to you for granting us faith and your wisdom so that we can continue our missions for our neighbors in 2014. Bless us to be the light to shine in the darkness. In your name, we pray. Amen.

Abounding in Hope (12/08/2013)

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-14

Today is the second Sunday of Advent and I will start this sermon with a true story. There is a book by Victor Frankl, who was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. His book is entitled, “FROM DEATHCAMP TO EXISTENTIALISM,” and he tells of his life in the death camps and concentration camps of Germany during World War II. For those prisoners in those death camps, it was awful. Rats, freezing weather and freezing rain, and freezing fingers and freezing toes, freezing warehouses and freezing outhouses, and beatings from the guards. The only hope for the prisoners, according to Frankl, was for the Allied forces to come and set them free. And for some unknown reason, that hope became connected with Christmas. The prisoners in one particular camp started to believe that freedom was going to come on Christmas. And so these prisoners clung to life. They struggled with their freezing feet and freezing toes and freezing hands. They struggled with their frost bitten bodies. Why? Because they had hope. Thank God, they had hope. They were waiting for Christmas. They were waiting for freedom. They were waiting for release. And finally, Christmas Day came. And Christmas Day went. There were no Allies. There was no release. There was no freedom. And there was no hope fulfilled. Immediately, on the days afterwards, before the New Year came around, slowly, one at a time, there was first one suicide. Then two suicides. Then three suicides. Pretty soon, people were sleeping through meals and sleeping through exercises and many people were slipping into their deaths. And by New Year’s Eve, many from this camp had died. Six months later, when the Allied forces finally did come to bring freedom to this concentration camp, half of the prisoners had died. Most of them died during that Christmas season, after Christmas Day. Many of them died because of the loss of hope. They gave up too soon.

Last Sunday’s sermon was about waiting in joyful hope. The theme of this Sunday’s sermon is also about hope. Advent is a season to hope for peace, love, comfort, or something like that in our lives. It is a season to fill ourselves with a hope from God who is the source of hope. However, these days, many say that we might find ourselves ashamed at how small our hopes are. Our hopes tend to be small. What about you? Do you hope big or small?

I believe that each of us has one’s own hope based on life situations. I, as a pastor, also have a simple but big hope to lead our church for 2014 so that we can serve our neighbors and spread Good news from God. So, outreach committee will have a very important role in doing this mission next year. God will support and guide us for the missions in which we will engage. My hope is that everyone prays and supports together. 2014 is coming soon. For 2014, I will do my best to organize our church missions for this goal.

What kinds of hope do you have? Today, we will take a look at the Scripture and examine our hope before God. Biblically speaking, we could say that hope is “Paul’s favorite word.” Used only three times in all of the gospels, Paul uses the word 14 times in his letter to the Romans alone. Hope is one of the most important qualities in our faith journey. It always says to us, “Don’t give up too soon, but continue to hope for every good thing before God.”

This morning, we read Romans 15, which is part of the climax of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This passage begins and ends with hope, and it says the character of God is the basis for that hope. In v. 4, “steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures” is the source of hope. In v. 5, “the God of steadfastness and encouragement,” to whom scripture witnesses, gives hope. In v. 12 the Gentiles hope in the Messiah and in v. 13, the final and familiar blessing sums up the passage, and indeed, the letter as a whole: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Here is Dante’s understanding about hope. You might have read Dante in high school or college. In the book, the sign above the entrance to Dante’s hell says, “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” For Dante, hell is a place with no hope. To enter hell is to give up hope.

Let’s go back to the beginning story. The people at the death camp had hope that freedom was going to come on Christmas. They could stand their freezing feet, toes, and hands. They could overcome their fears at the death camp. However, many of them ended up dying and some of them committed suicide. Why? Because after Christmas, they gave up the hope that allied forces would come and set them free. They could stand all of the challenges in their lives because of the hope. But when they lost the hope, they experienced hell on earth.

This morning, St. Paul proclaims to us “May the God of hope give you joy and peace in believing that you will be filled with hope, that you will be abounding with hope, and that you will be overflowing with hope for the future.”
What do these words mean for you? What does it mean for you to be abounding in hope? In the Book of Hebrews, we hear God’s Word which says, “With strong encouragement, seize the hope set before us.” In First Peter, God says, “We have been born to a new and living hope through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Hope in the Bible means to trust that God’s future is for us. Faith means to trust in God in the here and now; but hope means to trust in God’s future. To realize that God is in control of all future history and is in control of our personal history. To realize that God will not desert us in the decades and the centuries ahead of us. That is, no matter what happens in our lives, our future belongs to God.

We live in a season when the sign of God’s hope is the greatest. The coming of Jesus means the coming of hope. Not only is Jesus the prince of peace but also he is the prince of hope. Our hope is coming. Take a look at ourselves. Do we hope big enough to celebrate the coming of Jesus and to receive the power of hope from him? This season abounds with hope. We are filled with hope. We are overflowing with hope that the God, who has taken care of us in the past and today, will take care of us in the future, no matter what the future may bring.

Let me wrap up today’s sermon with a person who had a passionate hope for the future. Her name was Anne Sullivan. She had a driving hope that a young girl by the name of Helen Keller who was deaf and blind would be able to read, write and communicate. Anne Sullivan had a driving hope to teach this little girl, who was untrainable and undisciplined. Sullivan taught her to read, write and communicate. She did not give up hope. She didn’t quit. She didn’t give up hope and say, “This is an impossible job. This is an impossible task.” No, not at all. And now, Helen Keller has become indeed a legend.
What I am saying is that we Christians have a driving hope. We have a living hope. We have a hope for God’s reign of justice, love and peace for the earth. We also hope for God’s reign of justice, love and peace in this little personal world of ours.

I love what Soren Kirkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, said about hope. His definition of hope is “hope is the passion for the possible.”
When the God of hope lives inside of us, God gives us peace and joy in believing, and we abound in hope. We are filled with hope, we are overflowing with hope, and we are imbued with hope. We will experience our lives filled with a new hope from God.

Let us pray, Loving God, we give thanks to you for your Word. We believe that we are living with the hope that the Lord will come in peace. Now help us to prepare the way of the Lord and to make a room for God in this mysterious season. And bless us to enjoy this season within your love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray. Amen.