Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace.
This book profoundly inspired me through my preparation of this sermon on forgiveness this past week. There I encountered a powerful testimony of Célestin Musekura, who is pastor and theologian working on the mission of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda. As you may know, Rwanda is torn down and apart by the most tragic tribal wars between the Hutu tribe and the Tutsi tribe for a long time. This ethnically motivated violence culminated in a horrible genocide in April 1994. Over a period of one hundred days, nearly one million people were massacred. And three million fled the country. After the genocide, Pastor Musekura deeply felt God’s call to ministry for the survivors. And he started it with teaching people about forgiveness and empowering them to practice it in broken communities.
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, revenge killings still continued. On a Sunday in December 1997, a group of armed forces invaded Pastor Musekura’s village, and killed about seventy people in their homes, on their farms, and even in the church where they were gathering for morning prayer. Pastor Musekura lost his father, many family members, neighbors, friends, and the members of the church he served. Undergoing this tragedy, he found it extremely hard to practice forgiveness in such a situation. Although he was the one who taught people about forgiveness, he confesses that his heart eagerly wanted revenge. But one night, he was praying to God that his pain, sorrow, and grief would not blind him from seeing the unconditional love and redeeming grace he has received from God. Then, he heard God’s simple yet poignant answer, “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.” Rest of his testimony in the book is about his real struggles in his path of living out this demand of God.
“Forgive, as you’ve been forgive.” This answer from God truly is the core Christian way of forgiveness in a nutshell. We forgive, not because we are righteous or generous enough, not because we are merciful or patient, but because we are forgiven first by God who set us free from the power of sin, but because we are forgiven by Jesus Christ who was condemned and suffered in our place. For Christians, therefore, the foundation of forgiveness is the God who forgives. Renowned theologian Miroslav Volf beautifully sums up this core understanding. Christian forgiveness is never a two-way exchange between the one who forgives and the one who receives forgiveness. For Christians, forgiving always takes place in a triangle, among the one who forgives, the one who receives forgiveness, and God, the source of all our forgiveness. If we take God away, the foundation of forgiveness crumbles. “God is the God who forgives. We forgive as God forgives. We forgive by echoing God’s forgiveness” (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, 131).
Today’s Gospel reading also reverberates the same answer from God, “Forgive, as we’ve been forgiven.” In the reading, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) Here, the Greek word for “seventy-seven times” actually means seventy times seven. Yes, seventy time seven, which is, four hundred ninety. Is it really possible to forgive somebody more than four hundred times? You might be very suspicious about this demand from Jesus. Then, what does Jesus really mean by this? Let us look at the following parable.
After giving his answer to Peter, Jesus tells him a parable, the so-called parable of a wicked slave. In the story, the wicked slave is forgiven a huge debt by his merciful lord. But on his way out, he meets a fellow slave who owes him just a little. The wicked slave strangles the fellow slave asking him to pay everything he owes and throws him into prison. Hearing this nonsense, his lord cancels his merciful pardon for the wicked slave, hands him over to be tortured, and makes him pay his entire debt.
In this story, we shouldn’t miss two things. First, the different amount of debts is important. Jesus tells that the wicked slave’s debt was ten thousand talents while the fellow slave’s debt was only a hundred denarii. In Jesus’ days, one talent was approximately worth 6000 denarii. One denarius was a day wage for a laborer or a solider, so one talent equal to about 16 years’ wage. Therefore, compared to ten thousand talents, a hundred denarii was almost nothing. If we calculate one denarius as a dollar, the wicked slave’s debt was sixty million dollars and the fellow slave’s debt just one hundred dollars. What does this huge difference mean to us? It tells us that we are greatly forgiven by God, and compared to God’s such priceless forgiveness, the forgiveness we give to others is always near to nothing. So if we truly understand the magnitude of our forgiven debt, we should be able to forgive others seventy times seven. Indeed, our foundation of forgiveness is in God’s forgiveness, so we can forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
Second, let’s look at the destiny of the wicked slave. Because he doesn’t forgive his fellow slave, his forgiveness is eventually canceled. Here we see that forgiving is not an option for Christians but a demand and duty of faith. As Jesus teaches, we are only called to forgive others seventy times seven. And if we do not forgive others, we may not be forgiven. Remember also what we pray every Sunday, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Indeed, our foundation of forgiveness is in God’s forgiveness, so we should forgive as we’ve been forgiven.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are greatly forgiven by God’s grace. We have a new life in Christ, a new way of living as the children of God, a new hope in the future, without paying any price. As one who received forgiveness, amazing gift of grace, we are able to forgive others and are responsible to forgive others. We have always learned that God is the God of justice. True, for God, the world is sinful enough to be judged and condemned. But we have also learned that God is the God of love. True, God so loves the world that God is holding the due judgment and punishment upon it. Then, what does God do with this double bind, this dilemma? God forgives. God has justified us through Jesus Christ who suffered and was condemned in our place (Volf, 140). Each one of us is a receiver of this enormous grace. So we respond to God’s forgiveness by passing on forgiveness to others. “Forgive, as you’ve been forgiven.” You are forgiven so you can forgive and you should forgive.
Do you have any friend, co-worker, church member, or family member who has offended you? Jesus asks you to forgive seventy times seven today. Forgiveness is hard and costly. Even if we choose to forgive them, our forgiveness may not completely free our hearts from pain and suffering. Our forgiveness may not be able to carry out justice on them. Our forgiveness may not stop them from committing sins against us again. Nonetheless, we know that our foundation of forgiveness is God, so we are able and responsible to forgive. And we know that as we forgive, we join in God’s work of grace that heals, reconciles, unites, and restores the world. Forgive, as you’ve been forgiven. That’s God’s call for us today. Amen.
I’m recently reading “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which is a deeply inspiring memoir of the activist lawyer, Bryan Stevenson.
He is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based organization working hard for vindicating or reducing the sentences of wrongfully convicted individuals. The book is about his stories from his years as a legal advocate for the most vulnerable people in America. The stories themselves are strong statements against racial and legal injustice delivered upon the marginalized, and the institutionalized prejudice at work in the criminal justice system.
The leading story of the book is the story of Walter McMillan, a young black man falsely accused of murder. Stevenson followed McMillan’s long way to justice until he finally got exonerated and freed from death row. He also touches upon many other stories. Among them, the most heartbreaking story was about three children of color, who grew up in horrible environments with all kinds of abuse, violence, deficiency, and got unintentionally involved in crimes. Although the crimes were either non-homicidal and even without any reported injuries, they were tried and convicted as adults and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, which is an unusually extreme sentence to such crimes. While they are imprisoned in adult prison, they are broken and devastated by the years of hopeless confinement, rapes, sexual assaults, unattended traumas and mental illness. It’s really hard to read their stories without tears. These stories are in one chapter titled, “All God’s Children.” This title made me shed tears.
From Stevenson, I’ve learned that there are thousands of children like them and thousands of wrongfully convicted people scattered throughout prisons in the United States, legally condemned, unknown and forgotten, with no help. I’ve learned that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in three black male infants and one in six Hispanic male infants born this century are expected to be incarcerated when they grow up. These factors unbearably disturb me. Throughout the book, Stevenson appeals to us…it is mercy that should be the beginning and the end of the legal process of punishment. We need “just mercy” in our system of justice, which gives people another chance, gives people room to be redeemed and changed, besides the due penalty they have to receive. Indeed, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he says.
As Christians, we believe in God who is love, who is ever merciful and gracious. And our prime belief is that Jesus Christ saves us although we are still sinners. Jesus Christ gives us new life, new chance, new light with his unconditional love. As the people who receive this grace, what can we do with today’s biased system of justice? And in our daily lives, what can we do with our judgmental mind that always seeks to identify even small sins and flaws of others without mercy?
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, we learn again who our God is. Ezekiel hears God’s voice demanding him to warn the Israelites who sinned against God. God asks Ezekiel to proclaim, “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us…how then can we live?” Then, carefully listen to what God says to him, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways.” (Ezekiel 33:10-11) Here we see the God who mercifully waits for the sinners to return from sinful ways. God doesn’t want them to be condemned, but God rejoices when they turn back and live.
In today’s Gospel reading, we also learn again who Jesus is. Jesus teaches us what to do with a member who sins against us. The first thing Jesus asks us to do is “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” (Matthew 18:15) But it is never that simple for us to go first, because we think it is the sinner who should come to us first and beg us for forgiveness. But Jesus commands us to go first, even with a ready heart to forgive and embrace the person again. Jesus says that if the person refuses to listen, go again with other members. If the person refuses again, go again with the church. After all these, then, you may pass judgment. Jesus’ way is simple: in any case of sin, give the sinner a chance, room of mercy to return and to be forgiven before judgment.
Who is our God? Our God is love. God so loved the world that God gave the only Son. And God is holding the judgment until the end of the days. Who is Jesus Christ our Lord? Jesus came to us first, forgave us, befriended us, and embraced us with his unconditional love. He is a good shepherd who leaves ninety-nine lambs on the mountain and goes in search of the one that went astray. Jesus says, “if he finds it…he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:12-14). Our God, our Jesus, never abandons any of us but goes in search of us whenever we are lost.
Believing in this God and this Jesus, what can we do with today’s biased system of justice? I think we should seek love and mercy in any social or personal ways of carrying out justice. And we should demand just love and just mercy that lead all of us to find forgiveness and redemption and to see one another as God’s creature in God’s image and in God’s blessings. Stevenson claims, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” I cannot agree more. Let us remember that our good shepherd wouldn’t mind risking his life to find only one lost lamb. As we follow this shepherd, people will know we are Christians by our love and mercy.
And in our daily lives, what can we do with our judgmental mind that always seeks to identify even small sins and flaws of others without mercy? In his book, Stevenson asks, “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’” Reading it, I immediately revised the question. “The real question of passing judgment on others in our daily lives is, ‘Do we deserve to judge?’” I believe we should practice to ask this question to ourselves at every moment we want to judge others. Do we deserve to judge? Sinners like you and me? Do we deserve to judge? The people who have received God’s love, mercy, and grace for nothing? Do we deserve to judge? Or are we called to love justly? As Christians, we are not entitled or qualified to pass judgment. But rather, we are only called to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is searching for the least, the last, and the lost until the Day of the Lord. And out of all the marginalized and the sinners like you and me, out of all the falsely accused and harshly condemned, God calls God’s children and makes with them the kingdom of unconditional love. This amazing grace of God calls us today to join its transformative history. As the redeemed children of God and as the followers of Jesus Christ, let us practice just love and just mercy. Let us hold our judgment and try hard to embrace and forgive others first. And let us build a love-ruling community together in this fear-driven society. May the Lord be with us always. Amen.
More than a week has passed already since the landfall of Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas Costal Bend and dumped more than 40 inches of rain in four days. As you know, the storm caused catastrophic damages. It took people’s lives, left homes flooded, took power off, and destroyed several buildings, factories, and plants. The recovery process looks very challenging and overwhelming. We should pray for the people in Texas and should do something to help them.
We hear many stories of people living in the aftermath of Harvey…the tragic stories of victims and their families, and the upsetting stories of some evil people who rob the local stores and houses taking advantage of the chaos. But there are also heartwarming stories of those who are selflessly helping others with love. And one of the stories that touched my heart so deeply was the story of Collette Sulcer.
When the rescue team found her dead body floating in a canal, her daughter was alive clinging to her back. In the raging flood, she got out of her car and was trying to carry her daughter to a safe ground when they were swept away. Police say the mother fought desperately to keep her child’s head out of the water. And she eventually saved her daughter’s life by giving up her own. The self-sacrificing love of Collette indeed saved her daughter.
This story of Collette Sulcer has been in my mind last week. And as I was preparing my sermon, the story got overlapped with the story of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. In the story, Jesus talks about his upcoming suffering and death to the disciples for the first time. Why on earth does Jesus have to die? The disciples are greatly confused. But we all certainly know the answer. Jesus took up his cross and died in order to save our lives, liberate us from the bondage to sin and death, and reveal the way of new life in Christ. The self-sacrificing love of Jesus indeed saves us.
From Collette and from Jesus, we see the love in its ultimate form. This love has such a mysterious power that enables people to take other’s suffering just as theirs. It leads people to deny their self-interest and even risk their own lives for the sake of others. This amazing love, however, is very hard to attain and practice in our daily lives. Why? It’s because this life-giving love requires our self-denial and self-sacrifice. Yes, it is truly difficult for us to “deny” our desires, needs, and self-interests for the sake of others. It’s something goes against our natural instinct that compels us to “follow” our desire, need, and self-interest for ourselves only.
In today’s Gospel story, as soon as Jesus tells the disciples about his death on the cross, Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). We can easily understand where this Peter’s immediate and impulsive response comes from. For Peter, Jesus has been his only hope. He left everything to follow him. With Jesus, he could dream of the great new Kingdom. And Jesus is the one who can actualize the better future for him. But all his wishes are now shattered by this devastating news from Jesus. And it is not easy for him to give up all his desires, although he believes that Jesus is going to do what God asks him to do. So Jesus admonishes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23). Then, Jesus also awakes other disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16:24). Indeed, to follow Jesus, to follow his way of love, we should take up our cross. We should learn how to set our mind on divine things, how to deny ourselves for the sake of others.
I have to tell you, these days, it is hard to find a church that encourages their members to take up their cross, because this type of message makes people uncomfortable and feel urged. I know that. In contrast, it is easy to find a church that spreads the so-called prosperity gospel. It tells us that if we believe in God, we will be successful; we will be blessed with health and wealth; we will be like the winners of the world. I don’t think this gospel tells us untruth or deceives us. And I do believe that we are blessed for we know Jesus and follow him. However, what really concerns me is that the messages of the prosperity gospel may lead people to misunderstand the way of following Jesus. It may give people an impression that the way of following Jesus is not the way of self-denial and self-sacrifice, but it’s the way of self-aggrandizing enterprise with Jesus who is a great life coach.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, let’s not forget that without the cross, there is no gospel, no good news. Without the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, there is no salvation. In Christianity, there is no way that we can skip the cross to reach the glory of God. There is no shortcut toward resurrection without death. There is no empty tomb without the cross, no joy of new life without the risk of losing life. Remember, Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:25).
For the people in Texas, and for all the people who are in their own dire situations, what kind of gospel can we testify as the followers of Jesus Christ? Today, I believe, Jesus calls us to witness the gospel of the cross to them. We should let them know that Jesus suffers with them as he did on the cross with his everlasting love and compassion. And today, Jesus calls us to uphold the gospel of the cross for them. In every way, we should help them and share the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ with them as our way of following him and taking our cross.
For us, the followers of Jesus Christ, it is not an option to take up our cross. It is our call. It is our sacred duty because we know Jesus’ unending love towards us. As the faithful people who are willing to be the true followers of Jesus Christ and who want to abide in Christ’s love, let us take up our cross. Let us sacrifice our time, our energy, and our life for others, for the church, and for God. And let us deny our selfish desires and our self-interests for something beyond ourselves. May the Holy Spirit guide us always as we take our cross and follow Jesus. Amen.
“Who is Jesus?” What is your answer to this question? Some of us may answer it by referring to the Bible. Yes, there is no better reference than the Bible where we can find various descriptions of Jesus: “The Alpha and the Omega,” “the Bread of life,” “the author of life,” “the Word of God,” “Immanuel,” “the Light of the world,” “the Lamb of God,” “the chief cornerstone,” “the Prince of peace,” and so on. You know what, there are more than a hundred titles of Jesus in the Bible. And certainly, all of them are legitimate biblical answers.
“Who is Jesus?” What is your answer to this question? Some of us may answer it with the creeds, the formal statements of Christian beliefs. We may read the lengthy Nicene Creed or recite a part of the Apostle’s Creed. “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead…” Although the creeds were written a long time ago, they still give us authoritative answers confirmed by the Christian tradition.
“Who is Jesus?” What is your answer to this question? Some of us may answer it with profound theological knowledge. “Jesus is the mediator of God’s grace.” “Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise.” “Jesus is the liberator of the oppressed.” “Jesus is the special revelation of God.” Not all of us may not be familiar with these scholarly answers, but they are still reasonable answers as theologians have argued them for centuries.
“Who is Jesus?” To this particular question, there are already many good answers available. Indeed, from the Bible, from the Christian tradition, and from theologies, we can find legitimate, authoritative, and reasonable answers. And based on them, we can surely tell something about who Jesus is. And if you are willing to do more research, you will be able to get the reliable Christian resources anytime by online, from some books or some lectures. However, the question is… with all the research and all the information about Jesus, can you say that you truly understand who Jesus is? Can we confidently say that we don’t just know about Jesus but we also know Jesus?
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus asks the disciples the same question: (4) “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And the disciples answer, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). The disciples seem ready to answer this question, because on their way, they have heard others identifying Jesus with some historical figures. Some called Jesus John the Baptist because of his charisma and his subversive words that criticize the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Others often associated Jesus with some legendary prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah, because they witnessed Jesus perform miracles with his power from God. The disciples who witnessed all such things in a closest distance also have some similar ideas about who Jesus is. And they themselves try to make some sense out of it.
But then, Jesus twists the question, “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15) “Who am I to you?” This question could be a bit more uncomfortable because Jesus singles the disciples out to identify Jesus personally, and Jesus calls them out to focus on their own relationship with Jesus. “Don’t care about what others say, but who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. “It doesn’t matter how much you know about me, the only thing that matters in your relationship with me is who I am to you—not to others.” Here, Peter courageously answers, “You are the Messiah (the Christ), the Son of the living God” (16:16). This must be the best Peter could come up with. And that’s okay. Jesus knows that the answer is true and it comes from Peter’s heart.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, “Who is Jesus to you?” We may be able to know about who Jesus is from others’ perspectives. From the sources they provide, we can get legitimate, authoritative, and reasonable answers. But from your own living experience, from your own personal faith stories, from your own hearts, who do you say that Jesus is? Perhaps, this is one of the most resonant questions in the whole of Bible. And perhaps, this is one of the hardest questions that we should answer through our lifetime journey with Jesus.
Reflecting on the question, I thought of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I have no idea about who Jesus exactly was to him. But If I may venture to say, to him, Jesus might be the Christ, the Son of the living God who revealed God’s love that overcomes any unjust human barriers, who came to us to suffer with us and free us from all the shackles of sin and hatred. Reflecting on the question, I also thought of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a theologian and church leader who resisted against Nazi dictatorship, and he was executed. I have no idea about who Jesus exactly was to him. But If I may venture to say, to him, Jesus might be the Christ, the Son of the living God, who was incarnated and took his cross as a vulnerable human being and who calls us to take our own cross and learn his humility and costly grace. I do not know whether they have clear answers, but what I can surely tell is… they tried so hard to answer Jesus’ question as they earnestly followed Jesus in their lives. And they lived their lives up to their answers.
Who is Jesus to you? Now we understand that the way we answer it may define our relationship with Jesus. And the way we answer it may change our lives, our attitude toward others, our perspectives to see the people around us, our mode of existence in the world, and everything. Today, Jesus calls us to ask the question and answer it again and again through our life. From today, let us try to come up with the most honest and authentic answers, and live our lives up to those answers. The answers may change from time to time. Sometimes, we may be unable to have an answer. Even if we have an answer, we may be unable to find any word to describe it and any way to logically defend it. But it’s more than okay if we at least try to answer. And that’s what believing in Jesus is all about. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We may also confess like Peter, but let us first hear what our hearts say today and answer the question. As we look for our deep authentic answer of faith, may the Holy Spirit guide us and inspire us to know Jesus better and follow him closer day by day. Amen.
Last week I watched one of the TED talks. You know, TED is a media organization that posts many inspiring speeches online for free.
The talk was about the power of storytelling. The speaker, Susan Conley, is a writer and a co-founder of “The Telling Room,” and she talked about what she found out while working with the students of The Telling Room. The Telling Room is a creative writing lab in Portland, Maine.
Their program offers a safe space for writing their own stories. She shares that by telling their stories, the students discover who they are, why they matter in the world, and how their stories can make influence on others. She says, “Power of story changes lives and communities. If we understand the power of storytelling to it’s simplest level, then we might begin to help others understand themselves and their place in the world.”
Listening to her, I asked myself, “What is my story to tell? What is my story with power to change lives? The first thing came to my mind was my faith story. Why? It’s because I believe our faith stories—our living experience of God’s love and our daily walk with Jesus—have transformative powers to help us understand better who we are and why we matter in the world. But how much do you think we understand the power of our stories? Not sure? Then, today, I would like to invite you to reflect on our stories of faith with me.
Each of our faith stories is very special by nature. It’s because they are not just individual stories about faith. It’s much more than that. By God’s grace and through our faith, our stories are interwoven with the greater storyline of God and God’s people in the world. And we are making our faith stories within this storyline today. Here, one may ask, “You know what, there are many horrible stories in the Bible…the stories of sin, violence, exclusivism, persecution and so on. What do you say about them?” Yes, that’s so true. But one thing we should remember is that even through all those stories about failures and struggles of God’s people, the primary storyline of God’s salvation has been unfolding in a certain flow, in a certain course. And even through our stories, God’s storyline goes on.
Today’s Gospel story of the Canaanite woman reveals this storyline behind all our faith stories. In the story, Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, somewhere in the modern day Syria. In the days of Jesus, the Jews who kept their ethnic and genealogical purity despised this region, because they thought it was an impure place with idol worship, promiscuity, and mixed marriage. But today, Jesus meets a local woman there. She asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Jesus is silent at first, but as his disciples urge him to drive her away, he says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Now, she kneels before Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me.” Then, Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:25). Is this real? Does Jesus really call this woman “a dog” because of where she’s from? Where is our humble and loving Jesus, a good friend of sinners?
Why on earth is Jesus acting like a terrible racist here? There are many answers out there. And they are roughly categorized into three types. The first type of answers concerns the relationship between Jesus and the woman. They explain that by casting the harsh words on her, Jesus wants to test her faith. The second type of answers focuses on the relationship between Jesus and the disciples. Here, Jesus just acts like a racist on purpose, and the purpose is to break the prejudice of his disciples who ask him to send the woman away. So Jesus says something they would say to her, and let her reply with wise words. Then, by affirming her words, Jesus gives the disciples a lesson that God’s grace has no boundary. The last type of answers is more about Jesus himself. This type is interested in Jesus’ true humanness, and assumes that maybe Jesus doesn’t quite realize yet how widely God’s kingdom can be expanded. So, the interaction with the Canaanite woman was critical for Jesus to deepen his understanding.
How about these three answers? Which one do you buy most? I think all three of them are quite reasonable. But above all such explanations, what we shouldn’t miss in this story is that Jesus does not dismiss her anyway. Rather, he listens to her, and eventually, changes his position. Let’s go back to the story. Even after hearing the d-word from Jesus, the Canaanite woman does not lose her faith in him and replies back to Jesus with such courage. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). Surprised by her faith, Jesus says, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (15:28). Indeed, Jesus listens to her and changes his position. And if you read the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, right from this Canaanite woman, Jesus changes his position towards all the gentiles, the whole non-Jewish people. So from his encounter with the woman, Jesus begins to expand his boundary of mission to the outside of Jewish territories.
In this story of the Canaanite woman, we see the flow of God’s storyline of salvation. How does it go? Simply, it goes inside out. And it goes beyond boundaries. The Bible tells us that the story of God and God’s people began with one person, Abraham, then, his family, then, his ethnic group. But the story never ends there. In today’s Isaiah reading, we see God planning on expanding boundary to gather more people for salvation. And Jesus came and fulfilled this plan as he revealed God’s love for all and died for all. The story began within exclusive boundaries, but eventually, it goes over them, every single one of them, until it becomes our own faith stories.
Sisters and brothers of Christ, our faith stories are linked with this one great storyline of God that goes inside out and goes beyond any boundaries. With this storyline in his mind, Paul said two thousand years ago, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). As we continue this storyline in our lives, I believe our faith stories have incredible power to change lives and change the world.
Today, we are living in the post-Charlottesville time. We are living in the world filled with hatred, discrimination, racism, and bigotry. So we should tell our faith stories more loudly and invite others to join in the great storyline of God’s unconditional love and all-encompassing grace. Then they will understand who they are and why they matter in the world as we do.
Go tell your faith stories, how Jesus saved you with his love, and how you’re living as God’s child. Go tell God’s stories through our stories, how Jesus breaks down the walls among us, how the Holy Spirit moves us toward more openness, more love, more welcoming, more liberation, more acceptance, more forgiveness, and more affirmation. From today, tell these powerful stories to the people around you, not once, not twice, but over and over and over again. Amen.
ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. I think you may have heard this term at least once in any news last week. This horrifying device is what North Korea is believed to have now. I was afraid when North Korea threatened the US, and the US warned them back with the intense words like “fire and fury.” Yes, I am afraid of a war. When a war breaks out, I know the first target should be Seoul, the capital city, where most of my friends and family are. And I will have to go back to South Korea and may not see you again. Charlottesville, Virginia. I think you heard the name of this town all the day long yesterday on TV and radio. The rally of white nationalists hurt many people physically and emotionally. I was afraid when I saw the pictures of the rally, the rally of the people holding burning torches of racism. Yes, I am afraid of the deep-seated hatred and enmity in them. Missile shootings, fire and fury, burning torches… the images of furious flames evoked a certain sense of fear in my heart.
What are you afraid of these days? Indeed, too many things frighten us near and far. It’s worrisome when we hear accelerated global warming, indiscriminate terrorist attacks, and unending wars in our world. It’s scary to know more about problems of the health care system, the legal system, the public education system, and the issues of immigration, drug abuse, suicide, and gun violence in our society. And it’s fearful to face our own issues, our health, finances, family relationships… you name it. Surrounded by all such problems, we ask ourselves, “How should I live?” “Amid all the chaos and fears, how should we live as the followers of Jesus Christ?” I think this is the urgent question we need to ask today.
In today’s Gospel story, the disciples are in a very fearful situation. Jesus just fed the five thousand people, as we read last Sunday, and the disciples got on a boat to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, Jesus went up to the mountain by himself to pray. And that night, the disciples, while they were sailing on the boat, met a violent storm. The Gospel describes that the boat was battered by the waves, the disciples were far from the land, and even the wind was against them, so they couldn’t go ashore (Matthew 14:24). They were scared to death. The helpless fight against the storm went on through the night. Now, it’s early in the morning, and suddenly, they see a man walking on the sea. In the middle of the stormy sea, now they’re facing this ghost coming toward them out of nowhere. The Gospel tells us that the disciples “were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear” (14:26).
The man was actually Jesus. Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). The disciples now notice that Jesus is coming. And as soon as they see Jesus, what do they want from him? They definitely want Jesus to come over as fast as he can and cease the wind for them. But there is one person who has a very different, and probably insane idea at that moment. He is Peter. He says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). Can you understand him? Peter himself wants to go out to Jesus—not just wait for Jesus to come to him. So Jesus calls Peter out, “Come.” Then, Peter steps outside the boat and starts walking on the troubled water toward Jesus. But as soon as Peter notices the strong wind, he becomes frightened, and begins to sink. Then, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches him.
Today I hope, from Peter, we may learn how to break the power of fear. It was only Peter, among all the disciples, who thought he wanted to go to Jesus first and took his step outside the boat. What does this mean to us? Like Peter, we must step outside the boat first to overcome our fear. We shouldn’t hide ourselves and just wait for Jesus to come over and help us. Rather, we should take our steps toward Jesus. We should do something to go within Jesus’ reach. Indeed, faith in action is what we need to drive our fears away.
Here you may ask, “But Peter eventually failed, didn’t he?” Yes, he did. Why? Because Peter took his eyes off from Jesus and looked into the storm. From Peter’s failure, we learn another lesson. Our focus should be on Jesus as we walk. Under certain circumstances, we naturally feel anxious and scared, and nothing is wrong with that. But we better not allow our fears to dominate us and control us. How? Focus on Jesus who calls us out even in our stormy nights, “Come.” Focus on Jesus who is always walking toward us all through the night, through the violent winds and towering waves in our lives, to save us, to grab us when we are sinking.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, how should we live amid all the chaos and fears in our lives? How should we live as the followers of Jesus Christ? Step outside the boat and start walking toward Jesus. And while you’re walking, stop looking into the storm, but look at Jesus.
As we saw this past week, there are many fearful things going on in the world. And when we encounter fear, we just want to shut ourselves in. That is one of our common habits as humans. We want to stay inside, stay where we feel safe and comfortable, and passively wait until the problems pass us by. But the Gospel tells us today that that’s not what the followers of Jesus Christ should do. “Come.” Jesus is calling us out to take a bold step, even just one step, outside the boat. It’ll be still scary, but that’s how we start to plant God’s justice and peace in this stormy world.
In the face of the fear of war, the fear of fire and fury, let us step outside our doors and start sharing the peace of Christ with people around us by serving them and accepting them with our open hearts. Walk toward Jesus as God’s kingdom builders in the storm. In the face of the fear of the burning torches of bigotry, let us step outside our silence and start to address everyday racism and change something in our community, at our work places. Walk toward Jesus as the prophets of God’s justice in the storm. And in the face of personal and innermost fear for various reasons, let us step outside our closed minds, start looking for Jesus through our prayers, and stay always within his reach. Walk toward Jesus as God’s faithful disciples in the storm. We’re celebrating Higher Education Sunday today, we see our young adults. I’m pretty sure that you must be excited about your new journey, but at the same time, it’s also quite scary when you feel uncertain about your future. Whenever fear comes in your heart, don’t forget to put one step closer to Jesus.
Let us step outside the boat and start walking toward Jesus. On our walk, let’s not take eyes to the storm, but look for Jesus who is with us through the stormy night to save us, and who is now walking toward us and calling us out, “Come.” Amen.
Today let me begin my sermon with one of my favorite poems. It is written by a Korean poet named Jinha Goh. He is renowned in Korea, and more interestingly to us, he is a Methodist pastor serving a church in a rural area. Anyway, it’s a simple poem with the title, “An Empty Field.”
An Empty Field — Jinha Goh
Where only dry grass crunch
By the wind of late fall,
It is an empty field,
An empty field without hope,
An empty field without people,
An empty field without tomorrow.
Oh, and yet,
Who are you?
You who fill in the empty field all around,
The field nobody wants to enter?
Now let me invite you to imagine with me. One day in the late fall, probably one of the days in October or early November, the poet takes a walk around his rural town. It’s after harvest so the field is empty. It looks all bleak and barren. It evokes the emotions of sorrow and futility in his mind. And it brings him back to the moments in his life and perhaps, in his ministry, when he felt deep emptiness in his heart…the moments when he faced struggles of deficiency, helplessness, loneliness, and lack of possibility. Standing beside the empty field, he quietly intones, “It’s an empty field, empty field without hope, without people, without tomorrow.” There is nothing.
At that very moment of anguish, however, he suddenly feels something. A strange wonder awakes him and opens his eyes to see the reality in a different way. Perhaps, his eyes catch the glimpse into a spiritual dimension? On the empty field, the poet begins to sense the presence of something greater than him, something we may call the divine presence. In awe of this mysterious experience, he asked, “Who are you, you who fill in the empty field all around, the field nobody wants to enter?” In the presence of God, a moment of anguish turns into a moment of grace.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes to an empty field. It is “a deserted place,” the Bible elaborates. To this wilderness, there comes a large group of crowds. They are following Jesus on foot from the towns. But who are they? How can they travel in search of Jesus during the day? They probably have no daytime jobs. And later in our reading, we get to know that they didn’t bring anything to eat. They are desperate. If I may venture to compare, they are like the “dry grass” described in the poem…the poor dry grass on an empty field, swaying and crunching by the gust of wind. Empty-hearted and empty-handed people, who lost hope in their harsh conditions of life… they are indeed the dry grass in the wilderness.
But watching these people staying with Jesus until evening, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (Matthew 14:15). To them, Jesus replies, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (14:16). The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (14:17). They see nothing there on the deserted field, which is not really surprising. In fact, the only reasonable choice they can make is send the crowds away. But Jesus refuses to do so.
Then, Jesus asks his disciples to bring the five loaves of bread and two fish. And the Bible says something significant here, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looks up to heaven” (14:19). “Jesus looks up.” Jesus sees something, instead of nothing, on the empty field. What does he see? Both Jesus and the disciples see the crowds like dry grass. But the disciples are unable to see beyond what’s before them. It is hard for them to see the one…the one who already fills the empty field all around, and the one who is present with divine possibilities among those who are weary.
Today, we see ourselves in the disciples. It’s so difficult for us to see beyond our reality. It’s never easy for us to look up to heaven and seek out divine possibilities. And it’s impossible that we become like Jesus. Yes, that’s true. However, there is a way in which we can see as Jesus sees, or at least, as the poet sees. This way is called faith. I think you would be familiar with this cup-half-full-and-half-empty analogy.
We know positive thinking is to see a cup half-full and negative thinking is to see it half-empty. Then, what is it to see a cup that is almost empty but still say it is full? Crazy thinking? No, that is not the answer for Christians. The Bible testifies, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Through faith, we see beyond. Through faith, we find potentials above objective analyses on our status quo. And through faith, we encounter moments of grace in the middle of our moments of suffering. Indeed, faith is truly what matters in our lives to make differences, the differences that we have never imagined before.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, when we feel like we’re helplessly standing in a deserted place like dry grass, through faith, I hope we can raise our eyes and see God as Jesus did. And we can still find God’s abundant grace that we can experience anywhere, anytime. How about our church? Do we sometimes feel like our church is like an empty field? Stop focusing on what we don’t have. Instead, why don’t we bring our five loaves of bread and two fish to Jesus and see beyond through our faith? Don’t mumble, “We have nothing.” And don’t murmur, “We only have five loaves of bread and two fish, and that’s it.” Instead, proclaim, “We always have something more in the presence of our God.” And declare, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish and that’s enough…that’s enough for God to work with, to multiply, to feed us all, and to transform our realities with grace.” Faith, that’s what matters on an empty field indeed. May the Lord richly bless us today, so that through our eyes of faith, we may see beyond, find divine possibilities, and feel the presence of our God in our midst always. Amen.
It was a day of sweltering heat in Virginia, last summer. The heat index reached 105 degrees and a heat warning was in effect. 8-year-old Carmine McDaniel stocked a cooler full of cold water and Gatorade and left it outside his house. Why did he do that? He did it for his mailman, Mr. Henry.
He left a note on the cooler. “Mailman, water and Gatorade in cooler. Have a good day…and smile.” Mr. Henry came and found this surprise. A security camera captured the moment.
He says, “Thank God, thank you,” as he finds this thoughtful gift, and he snags a couple cold drinks. The simple act of kindness made the mailman’s day. This beautiful story went viral on social media and in the news, and inspired many people including myself to do the same.
I recalled this news while reflecting on Jesus’ parables in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus illustrates “the kingdom of heaven.” I thought, the kingdom of heaven may come like the story of this little boy. Perhaps, the kingdom of heaven may be realized like this simple act of the boy, just as it touched the mailman’s heart and empowered many others to do the same. And our reality may get closer and closer to the kingdom of heaven through such small moments of practicing love and mercy in our daily lives. Bottles of ice-cold water and Gatorade… they might look insignificant to others, but with them, the boy certainly changed a part of our world into the heavenly kingdom.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.” “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast mixed in with three measures of flour” and it leavens them all (Matthew 13:31-33). A mustard seed and yeast… they look insignificant, and actually, almost invisible to our eyes. But they do have power transforming reality. Jesus says it clearly… that’s how the kingdom of heaven works!
However, ordinary Jewish people of Jesus’ days, who heard his parables, had a very different idea about the kingdom of heaven. You know they lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, so they imagined that God’s kingdom will come with great power to judge other nations and restore all the glory of David and Solomon’s kingdom. Also, the most common biblical image of the kingdom was the Cedar of Lebanon, a great tree that makes the finest material for a palace or a temple (Ezekiel 17:22-23).
To the people with this image of Cedar in their mind, Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed and yeast. How weird would it sound? Jesus’ parables must be the strangest thing they’d ever heard about the kingdom of heaven.
Then, how does the parables sound to us today? Have you ever imagined the kingdom of heaven? If yes, how does it look like? Is the kingdom powerful and glorious? Can you easily associate the image of the kingdom of heaven with a mustard seed and yeast? Today, I believe Jesus is inviting us to see the other side of the kingdom of heaven as he did for the people of his days. He wants us to see not only God’s kingdom of judgment that will come in the future, but also the kingdom of grace that has already begun with Jesus and is being built by his followers little by little. Jesus wants us to see not only the heaven that will come with God’s great rewards someday, but also the heaven that is already among us in God’s daily blessings. Indeed, with his parables, Jesus is trying to turn our eyes to see the other side, the hidden side of the kingdom of heaven that is here and now; that is small yet transformative, invisible yet invaluable, like a mustard seed, like yeast, and like the boy’s bottles of drink.
Then, how can we find this kingdom of heaven that is hidden? Through the following two parables, Jesus gives us the answer. Jesus explains that this unnoticeable kingdom of heaven comes to the sight of those who search for it, those who know its value, and those who are willing to dedicate everything to it. He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).
Thinking of the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great value, I could recall the story of the boy one more time. I believe the boy had to pay some money to fill the cooler with bottles of water and Gatorade. And for this 8-yeard old, it could be big money. He might have to use his savings, a dollar he earned from cleaning his room, a dollar from shining his dad’s shoes. He might have to break his precious piggy bank. But the boy was the one who did find the surpassing value of serving his mailman on a hot day and the heavenly joy of sharing love and gratitude with him. The boy was the one who did find hidden treasure and one pearl of great value in his life. And he was willing to give everything he had to keep his kindness and love. In his giving, we see the heavenly kingdom germinating and growing in the world.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, as the followers of Jesus Christ, are you doing your best to grow the kingdom of heaven in the world? Have you found your hidden treasure or a pearl of great value in your lives and give everything to keep it to your own? Even if you haven’t found it, don’t worry too much. Just look around and start from what you can do. Start from a small thing in your family, in the church, at your work, and in the community. And keep on doing it. It might look insignificant, but Jesus says our small yet valuable efforts and actions will reveal the kingdom of heaven and build it here and now. It’s like a ripple effect. A small stone, dropped into a still water, makes ripples and expands them across the water.
And many of us are already doing it in many different ways. I’m really proud of our youth and children doing the backpack drive this year. They started this mission that they can give what they can. I believe their mission grows the kingdom of heaven in our community. And Rev. Aguilh’s Haiti Hope House mission is truly building God’s kingdom in Haiti. Our participation in his mission, our small donation to the mission can really change one young man or woman’s life. And how about your dedication to the church and your practice of mercy and love for the people around you? They might look small; but when you find heavenly value in loving them and helping them, make sure you keep on doing by all the means you can. God will grow the kingdom of heaven from you. So let us keep sowing our mustard seed and put our yeast in the world in the name of Jesus Christ. In so doing, we will surely find invaluable treasures and pearls of heavenly blessing. Amen.
Through his parable, today, Jesus gives us a precious teaching about who God is. In the parable, a farmer sowed good seeds in his wheat field. But one day, his workers find many weeds. It turns out…the farmer’s enemy sneaked into the field at night and scattered the weeds. So the workers ask the farmer, “Do you want us to go and gather them?” But the farmer replies, “No; for in gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:29-30).
The parable tells us two characteristics of God, who is the farmer here. On the one hand, God is the God of love who grants us grace no matter who we are. Whether we are weeds or wheat, by grace, God patiently holds judgment until the harvest time, until the Day of the Lord. On the other hand, God is the God of justice who will eventually judge us all at the harvest time. We don’t know when, but for sure, God’s justice will be fulfilled and all will be sorted out someday.
Indeed, the simple parable of Jesus reveals who God is in such an inspiring way. But today, I think the parable also tells us something about us, about how we should live in the way that our God, the God of love and justice, wants us to live.
When I was in college, we had an annual summer activity. The student association organized volunteers to go to rural areas and help famers every summer. I always loved to go there with my friends. We spent over ten days in a remote rural town and helped any farmers who needed more hands. One day, we went to a rice field. Our job was to pluck out weeds among rice. We had done it many times before. And it’s a relatively simple job, because, usually, rice is planted in straight lines, and we could easily find weeds between the lines, even though weeds and rice looked so much alike.
So…did everything go well and smoothly? Not really. There was a problem. That rice field was not rectangular in shape but had some triangular corners. The lines of rice got overlapped in those corners and made a mess. And there we started to get confused. Which one is rice, and which one is weed? I still don’t know how many rice plants we pulled out. And I don’t want to tell you how mad the owner of the field was that day.
In the parable of Jesus today, the farmer and his workers are in a similar situation. They find many weeds in the wheat field. In Jesus’ days, the most common kind of weed that people found in a wheat field was called “tares.” Look at the picture.
They look almost like wheat as they grow. It would be almost impossible to tell which one is wheat and which one is tare by sight. And to make the matters worse, people didn’t sow wheat in straight lines like rice. They just spread the seeds on the field and planted them quite densely. So it was much harder to pluck out only tares.
From the parable and also from my experience, I come to admit one thing that the parable clearly teaches us: human judgment is not reliable. We do not have the ability to discern wheat from weeds. If we make a quick judgment and remove the weeds, we will end up harming the wheat too. Sometimes we think too simply and dualistically: our world is like a field where the rice is planted in straight lines, and everything else in-between is the weed. But in reality, we encounter many corners where rice is enmeshed with the weeds. Sometimes we think that we can at least discern some of the weeds and pull them out. But the world is more complicated like an admixture of wheat and tares where their roots are entangled together. Here, the farmer’s words deeply resonate in our hearts. To the workers who suggest plucking out the weeds, he says, “No.” And he says, “Wait…until the harvest.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we sometimes think as if we were qualified to pass moral judgments onto others. Many Christians think as if they were on a higher ground of righteousness and even authorized by God to judge people based on their very limited understanding. We hear: “They are Muslim.” “They are Jewish.” “They are immigrants, undocumented.” “They are black.” “They are white.” “They are Asian.” “They are gay.” “Did you see his bumper sticker, Make America Great Again?” “Stronger Together?” “She drinks.” “He smokes.” We do judge others. We do label them as the weeds. And we don’t want them to stay in the same field of God with us, so we try to pull them out somehow.
But remember, God says, “No.” And God says, “Wait…until the harvest.” Today, our God of love is asking us to slow down and live on God’s patience and forbearance. God allows different people to grow around us. And God wants us to wait and see how things would turn out. Also today, our God of justice is asking us to leave the judgment unto God. Judging is not our job, because we really don’t know who would be wheat and who would be a weed until the time of the harvest. Then, what is the way that our God, the God of love and justice, wants us to live? We may live faithfully in Christ practicing godly patience among others, and leaving the judgment unto the Lord.
To follow this way of life, today, I’d like to suggest one simple practice we can do in our daily lives. Whenever you become judgmental on someone or some groups of people around us, simply pause your mind, stop your thinking, and pray God you leave your judgment unto God. Try to remain in that graceful moment of pause, and listen to God’s voice…“No.” “Wait.” I hope this practice will help us live as the followers of Jesus.
We are all here together in the field of God. Let us keep trying to see each other not with the eyes of judgment, but with the eyes of love and mercy. On our way of doing so, I believe we may be able to cultivate a small kingdom of heaven right here in this world until its complete fulfillment on the Day of the Lord. Amen.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus delivers one of his famous parables: the parable of the sower. The narrative of the parable is so simple that everyone can get it immediately. This could be why Jesus frequently used parables when he taught something complicated. It’s easy to hear, and it’s easy to circulate. But wait…is the parable really easy? I mean…is it really simple for us to understand what it actually means? Although the parable is easy to hear, we may find it hard to fully grasp. And it is true that the more we read the parable of Jesus, the more layers of meaning we encounter. So today, I just want to share my humble reading with you and hope that you may also grapple with the parable in your meditation, reach your own understanding, and share it with one another later.
In this parable of the sower, there come the sower, the seeds, and the four types of ground. First of all, let us think about the sower. To be honest with you, this sower seems very strange to me, because this person spreads seeds everywhere, on rocky ground, among thorns, and even on a path. Seriously? What kind of farmer wastes seeds like this? This sower may be really green.
I am not quite knowledgeable about planting or farming. But my grandparents were famers for their whole lives, so I happened to spend lots of time in their farmland when I was a kid. I saw them sow seeds too. They didn’t even scatter them directly on the ground. (2) They carefully placed seeds on the seedbeds in their greenhouse first. They just dropped one or two seeds in each hole of the seedbeds and grew them from there for a while. When my grandfather needed to spread his seeds right over the field, the first thing he did before sowing was to plow the field and remove all the rocks, weeds, and thorns. This way he could maximize the chance for the seeds to root and grow. They never wasted any single seed. I think this is nothing special. All farmers do the same.
So from my experience, I know the sower in the parable is not an ordinary sower. And what’s happening in the parable is not something that can likely happen on my grandparents’ field or in some usual farmlands. Some biblical commentators tried to make some excuse for the sower in the parable, saying that the agricultural technique of Jesus’ days was not much advanced, so farmers sowed like this sower in the parable. But the Bible tells us elsewhere that even in Moses’ days, people knew how to sow in a better way and how to plow the field with oxen (Deuteronomy 22:9-10). So here is my conclusion. If the sower sows like that—spreading seeds all over the places, this one does it intentionally for a special reason, and the sower definitely has seeds abundantly.
Then, who is this unusual sower who sows seeds on any ground regardless of its condition? Who is this rich sower who sows seeds like he has seeds abundantly? We all know who this sower is. The Gospel tells us that the seed sown by this sower is “the word of the kingdom,” which is the good news leading people into faith and new life. And there is only one who can sow this special seed. Yes, he is Jesus. Jesus sows the word of the kingdom on us. But he does it unconditionally. He spreads his seeds all over on us no matter who we are and no matter how our souls are. Even if my heart is like a stone-paved path where seeds can’t sink into it, the sower sows the precious seeds on me. Even if your heart is a rocky and shallow soil, the sower sows the precious seeds on you too. Even if our hearts are filled with thorn bushes chocking us, the sower still sows the precious seeds of new life on us everyday. How can we call this strange work of the sower? Yes, it is indeed the work of God’s grace. The sower sows the seeds on all kinds of soils because his grace is abundant and his love is unlimited.
Now let us think about the four types of ground—the path, the rocky ground, the ground covered with thorns, and the good soil.
Some people simply claim that those grounds represent four different kinds of people in the world. And God chooses one of them as the good soil so they can have good hearts to understand the word of the kingdom. This sounds quite uncomfortable. Can you imagine Jesus, our gracious sower, categorizes and discriminates people like that? I can’t. And I am sure that Jesus doesn’t mean this at all.
Rather, I believe that Jesus tells us about the four types of ground to teach us how hard it is to understand the word of the kingdom, just as it’s hard for the seeds to be sown in the good soil. For Jesus, if we can truly understand the word, we will bear fruits and yield manifold; we will receive the word in our hearts, and also, live out the word to build the actual kingdom of God among us. And if we can truly understand the word, we will also try so hard to make such place where people truly love God and love one another like oneself, where there is peace and joy regardless of circumstances, where there is true acceptance and forgiveness. This is the meaning of “understanding” according to Jesus—understanding the word not only with our heads and hearts, but also with our hands and feet. So on our way to reach such understanding, it looks unavoidable for us to struggle with the birds—the evil ones, the rocks—the troubles and suffering in life, and the thorns—“the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” (13:22).
But although there are many challenges out there, we know the sower will never stop sowing the good seeds on the grounds. Then, what is our work with the seeds? What does the gracious sower require of us? I believe all we need to do is to cultivate the ground. To understand the word of the kingdom and to actualize the kingdom life among us, all we need to do is deeply plow our rigid hearts, remove the rocks, and uproot the thorns. And when the seeds are sown, grow them with care. Check them everyday. Water them. And fertilize them. The cultivation of our hearts and souls… We, Methodists call it sanctification. For this sanctification, our tradition suggests us to use “the means of grace” Basically, this means of grace indicates the word and sacraments, but it also includes our prayer, bible study, fasting, Christian fellowship, and service of love. Why don’t we practice these practices of grace in our lives and keep nourishing our souls to bear fruits?
Sisters and brothers in Christ, how is your heart’s condition today? Paved with stones? Rocky? Thorny? Fertile? The sower is already spreading good seeds on me, and you, and each one of us. But are we ready to grow them and bear fruits? If not, let us take time to cultivate our soils. Let us try hard to understand God’s word and realize the kingdom of God among us here. And let us keep encouraging each other to yield the crops of love. There must be struggles on our ways of sanctification. But with a vision and hope for our joyful time of harvest someday, let us continue to be faithful in God’s abundant grace and move forward. Amen.