Sermon: Stay Awake

Text – Matthew 24:36-44, Date: November 27, 2016

We have two queen size mattresses in our house. One of them was given by my friend about 5 years ago. We have noticed that the matter is not as comfortable as it used to be. Whenever we woke up from the bed, we had back pain. So about a month or so ago, we stopped by a mattress store in Killingly. Although the ad outside said many discounts, we realized that they were not actually as cheap as they said they were. We even saw a mattress that when your spouse starts to snore, you can click your remote and the part where your spouse is lying is raised slowly. We were horrified when Daniel climbed up one of the expensive mattresses and started bouncing on it. But many people are willing to pay for expensive mattress because sleeping is very important part of our lives.

Sleeping well at night not only gives us rest but also rejuvenation for the next day. Sleeping has many wonderful benefits such as improving our memory, living longer, improving creativity, lower stress, sharpening attention, and steering clear of depression. I know that this is true because my father has been suffering severe insomnia for many years. He believes that his insomnia is caused by both his gene from my grandmother but also his work as pastor. He can only sleep 2 or 3 hours everyday. He tries not to take medication because he is worried that it is addictive. But still, he does not get more than 3 hours of sleep at night. Apostle Paul said that he had a thorn in his flesh given by God. I think that insomnia has been his thorn that he always prays to God to remove from him.

So, if you have a good sleep at night, you could be grateful to God because it is a blessing to have good rest. King Solomon sings in Psalm 127, “God gives sleep to his beloved.” But today’s message is a little different. Jesus tells us to stay awake because we do not know when he is coming back. Obviously, he does not mean that we should not go to bed at night but read the Bible all night long and welcome with our open arms when the trump sounds with Jesus coming in chariot. It means that we stay awake spiritually knowing that this world is not the end itself. As there was the beginning, Jesus tells us that there would be the end. If we are people who belong to the kingdom of God, not this world, we will stay awake spiritually believing that there is new world coming in God’s name.

See, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew knew that his audience was getting disappointed. We have four Gospels in the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They all point to what happened with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When they wrote their gospels, however, they also reflected on the circumstance of people they were writing to. The scripture reading for today takes place right before Jesus ascended to heaven. He says, “Stay awake. Wait for me.” The writer of Matthew specifically emphasizes his command compared with other gospels. It is because he knew that his own people were getting disappointed that Jesus was not coming back soon as he promised. They were being arrested and martyred as entertainment in the city of Rome. They were going through trouble and tribulation but could not understand why Jesus was not coming soon enough to save them.

It seems that sleeping could be the perfect metaphor here to point to our tendency to deny our reality when things do not go as we wish. According to a medical report, healthy sleep reduces depression. But when one has depression, it could excessive sleeping as well. Sleeping becomes a way to avoid any depressing situation or troubles in our lives. I know that I have been there before. In my first church, I had several times when I told my wife, “Honey, I don’t feel like going to the church today. I do not like my work. I do not think people appreciate what I do as pastor either. Can I please sleep in my bed for another hour?” She would answer, “Honey, today is Sunday. They need someone to preach this morning. So, get up, take a shower, and get in your car.” Have you also had that moment in your life? You did not want to care anymore but stay in your bed?

As I think about the followers of Jesus who were going through tribulations in their times, I am sure that they could have denied that Jesus was coming back again. They could have said, “He is not coming back. We need to focus on how to avoid persecution by escaping to the desert or moving to another country.” We could be also like that. When trials and tribulations come in our ways, we deny that they are happening by taking a positive attitude. We try to avoid such situation. But I believe that Jesus sends us out to the world where we know that there are pain and suffering, and even possibly persecution for being the followers of Jesus. He wants us there in the world raising our torch and expects his return as the Prince of Peace. As Jesus intermingled with the poor, naked, sick, and suffering, he wants us to be in the world sharing our lives together because there is hope.

Advent is a season of hope. We often confuse hope with optimism that things will get better tomorrow. Henri Nouwen defines the differences between optimism and hope this way. He says, “Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things – the weather, human relationship, the economy, the political situation, and so on – will get better. Hope is trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.” Even when things seem so dark, desperate, and depressing, our hope is found in God who will surely fulfill God’s promise. And the virgin birth of Christ is not only miracle that defies the law of nature but also proof that God will surely fulfill God’s promise.

We stay awake when we hope, not being satisfied or captivated by the presence or the past. We hope Christ comes and meets us today where we are with the message, “Emmanuel” that God is with us. We hope that the kingdom of God that already broke into this world with the birth of Jesus a long time ago will be fully realized in the future where there will be no more death, no more sorrow, no more exclusion, no more war, no more hunger, no more tear. It is because in the kingdom where God rules, there will be eternal life, reconciliation, healing, welcoming and inclusion, laughter, joy, and abundance. And when we gather as the body of Christ – even though we may not be perfect, we know that the kingdom of God is not far from us, but right here with us when we break the bread together and share the cup in unity and love for one another.

Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. They flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night, and when his buddies dropped him off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage—”Welcome Home Dad!” How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates, “When I walked into the house, the kids, about half dressed for school, screamed, ‘Daddy!’ Susan came running down the hall—she looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. ‘How did you know?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t,’ she answered through tears of joy. ‘Once we knew the war was over, we knew you’d be home one of these days. We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.'” Our Heavenly Father is also coming to us to meet us where we are in this season of Advent. Christ tells us to stay awake and wait for him.

In this season of Advent, so many people grow excited and occupied with how to celebrate the season of Christmas with their families and friends. As Jesus says in today’s text, many people worry about how to give a year-end party – what to eat, what to drink, what to celebrate. But for the followers of Christ, the season of Advent is a time when we actively hope together for the new world Christ is bringing to us. As we contemplate our lives today, I am sure that we all need some good news – whether individual or communal, political or economical … etc. We do not stay in bed oversleeping thinking that things will getter somehow tomorrow. But we stay awake, pray, gather, share, and work together actively participating in the redemptive work of God in this world. And I pray that God draws us nearer to trust in the promise of God for us. Emmanuel – God is with us.

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Letter: Abundance in God

Pastoral Letter for Thanksgiving 2016

 

When people talk about different denominations within the Christianity, they point out what stands out in each. The Catholic Church with the Eucharist. The Episcopal Church with the liturgy. The Baptist Church with baptism. How about Methodist church? I have heard many say that the Methodist church is all about food. While I am sure that there is more to Methodist church than just food, I believe that they are onto something there. Whenever food is shared, there is fellowship. When people gather at the table together, they share stories, laugh together, and grieve together. Sharing food is a way of sharing our lives together.

We certainly see that the ministry of Jesus could not be separate from food. The first miracle he performed according to the Gospel of John was that he turned the water into wine at the wedding in Canaan. One day, he saw the crowd going hungry while listening to his teaching. Since they had nowhere to go for food, he performed the miracle of feeding five thousand people on five loaves of bread and two fish. When he saw God’s children being reconciled to God, he entered their house and shared foods with them. No doubt that he was accused of being a gluttony because he always hung out with people over food and drinks.

One of my joys serving Living Faith UMC is that I witness the love of God through our ministries of sharing foods. We offer the food items at the Daily Bread and meet people who come from many different places. We sit together with people on Friday as we serve home-cooked meal. I can see that they are deeply touched in their hearts over the warm food. It is just amazing to see that different people come together and form a new community. They may not call themselves a “church.” But in my humble opinion, I witness a community of God, the kingdom of God, where the host of feast is none other than Christ, our Lord.

As Thanksgiving approaches this year, I am sure that all of us will be busy to prepare many foods. I am planning to host one myself on November 23 by cooking turkey, bread stuffing, grave sauce, mashed potato, and macaroni cheese. If you wish to come and join us, please let me know. I know that many will be occupied with where they go for the dinner on Thanksgiving and what time they stand in line for Black Friday shopping. But I pray that we all recognize the presence of Christ at the table who holds our lives together blessing us. Before digging in, hold the hands of your children and family members, give thanks to God for another year of bountifulness, fellowship, and life. Christ is certainly there with you.

If you also wish to practice a spirituality of extravagant generosity, we gently invite you to consider giving to the Daily Bread for the thanksgiving baskets this year. The true spirit of Thanksgiving is grounded in the hospitality for/by the strangers. When the colonists were starving to death, the Native Americans shared hospitality by teaching how to plant, hunt, and survive the harsh winter in New England. It is a day to remember how hospitality brings strangers together overcoming indifferences and animosity. As we reflect whom Jesus sat at the table with, we know that he always befriend with the sinners, strangers, women, and children, I pray that we think about who are silenced, forgotten, and oppressed today. Aren’t they certainly our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we are invited to sit together today?

May God abundantly bless your table of love and hospitality on this wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

Pastor Bob

Sermon: Do Not Worry

November 13, 2016

Gospel – Matthew 6:33

In the summer of 2009, I was working at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen as a hospital chaplain intern. My job was to visit from room to room meeting the patients, listening to their stories, and offering my care. Hospital is a very interesting place that shows the cycle of life. Any time during the day, there was a melody coming out of the sound system. It meant that a baby was born in this world. Every time the nurses heard the sound, they stopped what they were doing and said, “Aww…” While there were joy and celebration in the birth room, there were patients who were dying without anyone knowing. They were surrounded by their families and friends. In the midst of silence, they were passing from this world to eternal world.

One day, I had a very long and exhausting day and wanted to go home as soon as possible. But I felt the Holy Spirit telling me to stop by one more room before going home. As I knocked the door, an elderly woman answered. Her name was Elizabeth. “How are you, Elizabeth?” She answered, “Oh, I am worried. It is a terrible world to live in.” “What do you mean?” She said, “The world is not safe at all. If I open my door to a stranger, who knows what he will do to me? If I get on an airplane, who knows that it won’t fall to the ground?” She went on saying why she felt unsafe in this world. And I asked her, “So, why are you in this hospital?” She said that she had a cancer and showed me a prayer card with a Catholic Saint named “St. Peregrine.” She asked me, “The nurse gave this to me but I do know who this person is.” I told her that I would find it out by the next day and bring the answer to her.

To be honest with you, I thought that she was a little dramatic when she told me why she was terrified by many things in the world. But over the past 7 years, I have been learning that our life is not as safe as we think it is. We see the five years old Syrian boy being covered with ash and blood in the bombing in Aleppo, Syria. We see the Syrian refugees risking their lives on boats to provide better place for their children. Last year this time around, 130 people were killed by terrorists in France. We think that these kinds of violence only happen outside the U.S.? Well, think about all the shootings at the movie theater, streets, and even at elementary school like Sandy Hook Elementary School? Think about the Boston bombing that killed innocent children?

On individual level, I also have many worries as well. Since 2011, I have been married and we have a child. Having a family is a wonderful blessing but comes with many responsibilities and commitment. I worry about the health of my wife and Daniel. I worry about the finance for our family. I worry about my parents who are aging and near retirement. I worry about my work as minister whether I am doing the right and effective thing or now. I worry about the finance, children ministry, and the future of the church. Since I was ordained this summer, our conference has asked me to work with several committees. Now I worry about the finance and administration of our conference too. How about you? What are your worries?

As Jesus was giving his words to the crowd on the mountain, I wonder what Jesus was seeing on the faces of people. These are people who lost their country to another powerful country. They lost their government. They were forced to worship another human being as their god. They had to pay heavy tax and forced to live without having enough for their families. Their women had no rights not just politically but also religiously. Their children were treated as second citizens. Their religious leaders did not offer the words of comfort and mercy, instead words of judgment and responsibility. These were the people disfranchised and suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Just like Elizabeth, they could say, “This is such a terrible world to live in.”

And Jesus tells them, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Your life is more than food, body, and more than clothes. Look at the birds in the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns. But your heavenly Father feeds them. Look at the flowers of the field. Aren’t they the design and work of your heavenly Father? You are more than these birds and flowers. Your life is more than worrying about food, clothes, or your body. So, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. If you do, what you consider as necessary to your life will be given to you as well. So, do not worry about tomorrow. You have had enough trouble of today already. Rest in God knowing that God is the One who is in charge.

As Jesus addresses God as our Heavenly Father in his prayer, he teaches us that there is intimate relationship between God and ourselves. It is a relationship that can never be broken by any force in the world. And because God is our Father or Mother, our life has a meaning in this world. Our life is not defined by how much money we have, how big our house is, what clothing we wear. Our value is found not in what we possess, but in whom we worship – our God who is abundant in God’s grace, compassion, and love. Whenever we reflect on the characteristics of God by being merciful, compassionate, forgiving, and loving to our neighbors, we find the true purpose of our lives in God who gives us the infinite joy.

After I went home, I did some research on St. Peregrine and found out that he was an Italian born in the 13th century. He had cancer on his leg but cured miraculously. So he has been named the Patron Saint of those suffering from cancer and people with cancer in the Catholic tradition pray to God through him. I was excited to share the research with Elizabeth the next morning only to find out that she passed early in the morning. I was standing there in her room devastated for a while. While I was praying silently, another patient in the same room called me. “I know that you were here yesterday. I heard you.” Her name was Mary. As young, Mary did not live an easy life. While a teenager, she ran away from her abusive parent. She met another teenager boy and started living with him. She soon became pregnant but had to put her daughter out for adoption since she and her boyfriend simply could not raise a child.

As she shared her story, Mary sometimes wiped tears from her eyes. She soon got into drugs and became addicts. She ran away from her boyfriend who introduced her to drugs. While she was isolated suffering greatly, she met Christ through a church that embraced her as she was. She gradually found healing in her body and soul. She met another man who was now her husband who loved her and supported her. She grieved and missed her daughter. Through the adoption agency, she was able to locate her daughter who was living in Phoenix. “When I finally got a hold of her and met her, she was at her last stage of cancer.” Her daughter told her, “I know that you abandoned me while I was a baby for some reason. I could not forgive you so many years. But I forgive you now.” Mary said that she and her daughter spent the last months of her life together and it was the best time of her life.

When Elizabeth was dying early in the morning, Mary approached her and said, “Elizabeth, I am here for you. Do not worry. God is with you. Do not worry. You are not alone.” As she was sharing her story, I was also wiping my tears. As I still think about my meeting with Elizabeth and Mary, I believe that Christ calls us to be Mary in today’s world. We do not come from the most perfect places. Many of us have stories of shame and guilt. Many of us still carry wounds and brokenness. Many of us are not healed. But in the midst of all that, we hear the voice of God who call us, “My child, do not worry. I knew you even before you were born. I love you more than you can imagine. You are way more valuable than anything in this world.” And we tell the message to others like Elizabeth in our community and world. “Do not worry.”

This past week, there was the presidential election and at least I am glad that it is over now. Some people are happy because the candidate they voted is elected. Some people panic because of some disturbing news of incidents when women, immigrants, and Muslims are attacked because of who they are. Moreover, we have learned how our society is divided. Our nation needs healing and reconciliation. In time such as this, I believe that we need to remind ourselves who we are as church. We, Christians, follow the way of Christ who loved the poor, sick, and marginalized. If we love Christ and follow his way, then we need to welcome such people radically with our open arms and love them. While some people say that they want to immigrate to another country, we as Christians need to march to the world with messiness because Christ sends us out there to proclaim the good news and share his love with God’s people. We say, “Do not worry,” because God is surely with us in this time and will be with us always.

 

Would you please stand and sing with me, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow?”

 

Why should I feel discouraged

Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart feel lonely

And long for heaven and home

When Jesus is my portion

A constant friend is he

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches over me

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches me

I sing because I’m happy

I sing because I’m free

His eye is on the sparrow