Sermon: Life Interrupted

January 22, 2017

Text – Matthew 4:12-23

As a father to young boy, I often sit and watch the Disney Channel. I watch Mickey Mouse and the Club House, Miles from Tomorrow Land, PJ Mask, and Little Einstein… etc. And I often feel uncomfortable with commercials interrupting the show constantly saying, “Don’t go anywhere. We will be right back after these commercials.” Obviously, there is a plot for the show that builds tension that requires resolution. But the show constantly interrupts with many commercials that have nothing to do with the plot of the programming. I first thought that American TV has many commercials so that people can use the bathroom or make the popcorn in the microwave. But news article from Times in May 2014 points out that the American programming has been increasing more commercials over the years because more ads mean more money for the TV industry.[1]

As people, we may not appreciate such interruption in the middle of our lives. Since we have limited time and resource, we want to get our works done more effectively and quickly. You gather for a business meeting in the afternoon. You care for your company but want to finish your work as soon as possible so you can go home, rest, and spend some time with your children. But in the middle of the meeting, Johnny raises his hand and constantly interrupts your meeting, making jokes and telling stories that really have nothing to do with the business agendas. I wonder if you have had Johnny in your work place. But I do know Johnny when I go to my clergy meeting. Most of people would not appreciate disruption. We have the flow of our lives. We have the rhythm of our meeting and work.

As we read the story from the Gospel of Matthew, I wonder if Peter and his brother Andrew also felt the same. They were fisherman at the Sea of Galilee. Just like another day, they probably caught some fish that would be enough to sustain their families and business. Maybe they were giving thanks to God for catching the fish for the day and hurrying to mend the nets so they could go home and see their families. But all of sudden, a man appears to them and say, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus interrupts their works in the middle and even disrupts their whole lives by calling them to follow him. How would you have responded to him if he came to your work places and told you, “Follow me”? Wouldn’t many of us say, “Sir, I am quite happy with my job and my family. Maybe another time.”

What is interesting with the Gospel of Matthew, unlike other Gospels, is that the story of Jesus’ calling two sets of brothers could have been omitted here but still continue as an intact plot. After John was arrested, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He calls his first disciples. And then he continues on in his work of proclaiming the kingdom of God by teaching in synagogues, curing every disease and sickness among people. It is like there is a story of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God that is interrupted by another story of Jesus calling his first disciples. It is like the writer of Matthew is intentionally interrupting the storyline by telling us how the ordinary and perfect lives of Peter and Andrew are interrupted. He wants to tell us to be attentive when our lives are interrupted because it could be a sign of Christ’s invitation for us.

One day, I took Daniel to a playground inside a mall in Massachusetts when he was only a year and half old. As many parents do, I was sitting on the bench and reading from cellphone. Daniel constantly wanted to get my attention screaming and yelling. I was a little irritated because I thought that he was interrupting me from doing my works – reading emails, checking the news, scanning Facebook. After a while, I realized that he kept interrupting me because he wanted to show me that he could come down the slide on his own. He used to be so scared to come down the slide before but he wanted to show me proudly that he now could do it. I could have missed it totally. But I am glad that he was so persistent that I did not miss a moment of his growth. Daniel’s interruption became an opportunity for me to reflect on my parenthood and appreciate every moment with him as a divine gift.

Jesus interrupts the lives of Peter, Andrew, James and John. These were not people who had nothing to do or no one to lose. They had their perfect jobs. They had their perfect families. They had their perfect lives. But Jesus tells them that he needs them. Why? When he probably could have done all the works by himself? When he had the power to cure the disease. When he had the power to calm the storm and walk on the water. When he had the power to turn the water into wine. When he had the power to feed five thousand and four thousand people. Why does Jesus stop by at these boats and interrupt the lives of good people like these men? This story interrupted by the calling of his disciples reveals to us how God works in this world. Although God could have done it all by Godself, God refuses to work alone. God desires to do it with us. God invites us to come and taste and work for God.

When Jesus fed the five thousand people, he did so not out of nothing but out of a lunch box of a young boy whose mother packed five loaves of bread and two fish. When the boy generously offered his lunch box, Jesus blessed the food and fed the five thousand people with 12 baskets of leftover. The boy probably felt disrupted by the request of Jesus. But his generosity would lead to the miracle of abundant food for the multitude. How about the Good Samaritan? When there was a man dying on street because he was robbed, stripped, and beat, the priest and Levite come but pass by. They did not want to be interrupted by helping this person. But the Samaritan accepts the interruption as a call to be a neighbor in need. The one who is rejected and marginalized religiously, politically and socially becomes the model for the true neighbor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who had a promising career as scholar in the U.S. during the World War II. However, in noticing the evil rising with Hitler and Nazis government, he decided to go back to Germany to be with people and nurture young seminarians by sharing their lives together. In his book “Life Together,” he writes, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks. It is a strange face that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked yet straight path.”[2]

Jesus still comes to us and meets us where we are. We often do not recognize him because we are preoccupied with our own concept of peace, happiness, and safety. We might believe that we have figured out our life plan – when we would get married, when we would have our children, how much we put into pension, when we would retire, and where we would buy our house …etc. But Jesus comes to us and interrupts our perfect lives. He tells us, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” If Peter and Andrew knew Jesus’ background as the son of carpenter, they could have responded, “We know much better what it takes fish.” But they abandon everything that they have. And they start to follow to unknown, unsafe, and uncomfortable places. But they follow Jesus in their faith – the faith that is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Jesus meets us where we are. Jesus does not negate our background, our skill, and our gift. Rather, he transforms them for the work of God so that what we do, what we know can glorify none other than God who created us in God’s image and has given us new purpose of our lives – to love God and to love our neighbors. When I spent one week at Rolling Ridge in North Andover, the Methodist retreat center, I met 9 students who came to seek ministry. Some of them were already retired or near retirement. They thought that they could enjoy their time with their families and grandchildren. But Jesus came to them, interrupted their lives, and called them to serve God and God’s people. They came from many different backgrounds – computer, education, library, sales …etc. Jesus now uses their knowledge and experience to proclaim the kingdom of God right here with us when we share the love of God with one another.

I believe that Jesus still comes to us and meets us as individual. He comes and whisper to us when we meditate, when we walk, when we drive. He tells us to follow him because he needs us in this world. Jesus comes and meets us as church too. When we hear the cries and pain of our neighbors, we know that it is the voice of Christ calling us to the world. We follow him and realize that he has already been there for us. Are you feeling interrupted in your lives today? Are you feeling frustrated because your plans are being altered? Maybe Christ is extending invitation to follow him through the interruption in your lives today. Won’t you answer his call to follow today? Let us arise and sing together, “Where He Leads Me.”

 

 

[1] http://time.com/96303/tv-commercials-increasing/

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

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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.

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