It was last Wednesday afternoon when snow was starting to fall heavily. I had to go somewhere so I was driving on I-95. Every car on the road was slowing their speed down and carefully moving along to keep enough distance. But there was this one car in the next lane; this car suddenly cut me off without any proper caution. I was quite surprised and had to press the brake pedal fast and hard on the slippery road. Let me tell you, it was very annoying. But there was one more thing that surprised me even more. It was the plate number of that car. As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t help laughing. The plate number was, “AMENOOO.” Seriously, I’m not joking. It really was, “AMENOOO.” I felt sorry to the driver, but it was so funny. And I got to laugh even more when I saw two bumper stickers on this car. On the left side of the bumper, one sticker said, “Let the Church Say.” And on the right side, the other sticker said, what? Yes, “Amen!” Again, I am not joking at all. I also noticed, there was a shiny chrome trim around the plate, saying, “Peace in Christ.” I thought, “Oh my God…where did this driver get all these from?” Anyway, it was too obvious. The driver must be a Christian, must be a very faithful one. But the problem was that he kept on driving way too wild and reckless. Indeed, the driver decorated his car as godly as he can but drove the car as ungodly as he can. So I asked myself, “does he know what amen even means? And ultimately, to what, this person says amen? To what?” I was curious but there was no way I could find the answer.
Do you know what “amen” means? The word “amen” is a special form of response. In the Bible it’s a declaration of affirmation to a certain message, word, prayer, or command. It’s a solemn expression of strong agreement and hearty approval. So when we say amen to something, it’s like we say, “Yes, I do so believe,” “I certainly agree with it,” or “So be it!” Thinking of these meanings, I hoped the driver might have a great word of God he cherishes so much in his heart that he has to say amen to it all the time even with the plate and the bumper stickers on his car. If not, the word amen is meaningless. And I know there’s no such thing like Christian driving or Christ-like driving, but I think, if he would care more about others on that snowy road, his amen must be more meaningful.
Today, right after I read the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, we all said, “Amen.” Do you remember? By saying this amen, we gave our full consent to nobody else but Jesus Christ. We replied back to Jesus himself, “Yes, I do so believe.” “I certainly agree with it.” “So be it!” But if we look at the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading for today again, we may realize, the amen we just said about five minutes ago would be the heaviest amen we’ve ever said. Let me read you again, to what message, you and I did say amen. Listen carefully. It’s two parts. The first part goes, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (Luke 6:27-30). And here the second part goes, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:36-38). How about that? We said amen to these words. We said, we believe them as the truth. We faithfully approved the message and decided to abide by them.
But can we? Can we possibly follow those teachings of Jesus? If we try hard, we may be able to practice the second part somehow in our lives—perhaps not every day but on some good days. We may be merciful, forgiving, generous, and not judging or condemning others on some good days. But then, what about the first part? Can we really love our enemies? Can we truly bless, pray, and give even to those who curse, abuse, and take? Can we possibly meet this high standard ever in our lifetime? Let’s be honest. It’s impossible. It’s beyond our ability and goodwill. Then, why did we say amen to such message? To this impossible command of Jesus Christ? If we were not truly able to abide by them, our amen would be also meaningless and empty like on the car plate and the bumper sticker.
But let’s not be discouraged. I know, what Jesus asks us to do seems truly impossible. Nevertheless, I believe, saying amen to his word can make a difference, if we do it from the bottom of our heart with our good intention and serious commitment. I believe Jesus hears our heartfelt amen to his message and helps us to follow it. I know, by just saying amen, by just giving our consent to Jesus, we are not going to be a special person right away. But by saying sincere amen, we may hold Jesus’ guiding hand that keeps us on his path. By giving our genuine heart to Jesus, we may have the Holy Spirit on our side who always inspires us to keep on loving.
With our ability only, with our effort only, we will never be able to love our enemies and bless and pray for those who curse and abuse us. But with Jesus’ love and grace that transforms our hearts, our life, our action, we certainly can. So here, saying amen mindfully and willingly to the teachings of Jesus is the first step to make a difference.
Do you want to keep on loving even if you can’t do it anymore? In the face of enemies, temptations, challenges, and violence, do you, as a Christian, want to keep on loving as Jesus did? I’m sure we can, when we say amen with your full heart to the words of Jesus today. Amen Jesus! “Yes, I do so believe.” “I certainly agree with it.” “So be it!” Let us hold Jesus’ helping hand, stay in the presence of his empowering Spirit, and try to make a difference in our lives. (5) “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.” And now let the church truly and wholeheartedly say. Amen.
Today I am delivering the third sermon in the sermon series, “Keep On: the Jesus Way of Life.” What do we have to keep on today to follow Jesus in our lives? Let’s find out together another life principle that conforms to the way of Christ.
When was the last time you prayed so desperately for something? When was the last time you searched for God’s help so urgently? Take a moment and think about it. When was it? Was it when everything was going well with you? Was it when you were well-off, well-fed, and well-accepted? No. I don’t think so. We human beings tend to seek God and yearn for God when we have nothing but God, when we have nothing to depend on but God.
For me, I prayed one of the most desperate prayers in my life about a year ago. You may remember the coldest week in last winter. It was the week when the activity of the so-called polar vortex was very strong and dropped temperature below zero in North East. The boiler in Verona United Methodist Church broke. Yes, what a timing. The rotten bottom of the feedwater tank burst and the boiler stopped working. If you see a steam boiler system, there’s a feedwater tank that collects the returning condensate water and feeds it back into the boiler so the system can keep running. What I’m saying is, it’s an important part of the boiler. Anyway, I urgently called the plumbing company right away but they said, it will take a few days to get the tank delivered. And the weather forecast terrified me. It said, the cold snap will last for a week! I felt miserable. And I was so much worried about the pipes in the church. They will definitely get frozen and burst. So I had to manually feed the water into the boiler like every 4-5 minutes and pump out the leaking water from the tank. I almost camped out in the boiler room for about three days until the tank finally got fixed. In the boiler room, my prayers…they were so desperate. I kept praying. Not just for the boiler situation, but later, I also got to pray for the church, for the church members, for their families, and for all the other things. Sitting in the boiler room, cold and dark, I was really tired, but in such a weird way, I had an intimate time with God for three days. And that was a blessing I found in a misfortune.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is preaching on this kind of blessings. In his famous Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:20-23). Here Jesus tell us that the blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the afflicted. This good news of the Kingdom of God turns our value system, our world, upside down. What does he mean? He tells us, “God is the God of those who have nothing but God.” God gives blessings to those who desperately call upon God and to those who can barely sustain their lives. In their unfavorable circumstances, they get to know God better and deeper. They humbly realize that they truly are in need of God every day and every moment. And that’s the blessing—nothing else, having a close relationship with God, which is the channel for all other profound blessings in life.
Here, we may ask, “Well, I understand what Jesus says, but isn’t Jesus romanticizing poverty and suffering? Does Jesus mean that we better be desperate to be blessed?” Well, that’s not what Jesus means here. We don’t have to be sick to get better. Right? And the boiler doesn’t have to be broken again for me to get closer to God. No. Way. I don’t think Jesus wants you and me to suffer to be blessed. And we need to remember clearly that Jesus’ ministry is all about healing, liberation, and joy. So by telling us about those blessings, Jesus is actually giving us a promise. Even if you are in those misfortunes, rest be assured, you can still be in the blessing of God as you seek God and ask God’s help with humble hearts. Why? Again, it’s because God is the God of those who have nothing but God.
If today’s Gospel reading just ends with blessings, I would be a happier preacher today. But the Sermon on the Plain doesn’t end with blessings, unlike the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to talk about “woes.” He says, in short, “Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.” The words of Jesus here are quite radical and blunt. We have to ask again, “What does he mean? God’s prosperity is not a blessing but a woe? Isn’t he judging those well-off people? Is he warning us not to be rich, full, happy, and popular?” Again, the answer is no. Here, Jesus is just talking about the truth, this plain truth: if we are in favorable circumstances, we become not that desperate for God. We are not keenly aware of our need for God’s help. We may go for days without talking to God, without thinking about God. It becomes hard for us to kneel down before God with a humble heart. And God is not our priority anymore. There are other things to enjoy and other things to ensure our cozy and happy life. So everything related to God becomes a postscript, a supplement to our lives. And that’s the woe—nothing else, feeling no urgency to be in a close relationship with God. Yes, the woe, it is.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, our God is the God of those who have nothing but God, of those who seek God in their sense of urgency and desperate need. Therefore, if you are in misfortunes now, I hope and pray that you call upon God, the God who promises us the blessings of grace and joy in the midst of hardships and the blessings of getting closer to God even through the stony roads of life. And if you are in a comfortable situation now, I hope and pray that you be watchful of the growing complacency in your hearts and be alert to your spiritual slumber. Then it will help us keep the relationship with God as number one priority in our lives. Let us keep on walking with our God every day and keep on trusting our Lord every moment. Let us stay in the loving relationship with God. And yes, that’s the blessing—nothing else. Amen.
Keep on following the call even if you need to leave things behind (1 Corinthians 15:1-11) (Luke 5:1-11)
When was the last time you felt like Jesus was calling you? For some, calling is like a gentle breeze; the voice of Jesus softly whispers and nudges them to change their mind and make different choices. For others, calling is like a wild thunderstorm; the Holy Spirit abruptly interferes their lives and turns their life upside down to follow Jesus right away. In any way, we may have such a moment that we feel like, “I better do this because I believe in Jesus.” “I’m tried and busy but I’ll go to the trustees meeting, Souper Saturday, and so on to serve others.” “I’m going to be more loving and kind to someone because I’m a Christian.” “I will forgive somebody with Christ’s love.” These may be some small moments of calling, calling to follow the way of Jesus Christ.
As a pastor, I have my call to ministry. In The United Methodist Church, the candidates for ordained ministry are required to take a long time to complete their coursework, paperwork, mentoring process, psychological assessment, and a series of intensive interviews. But for what? All of these are for them to discern their call to ministry as clear as they can, because that calling is an essential prerequisite, a must-have, for their ministry.
One spring day in 2012, I got a phone call telling me that I may be appointed to this church. Back then, I was quite sure about my calling. But as soon as I finished the phone conversation, honestly, I was afraid and became doubtful. For sure, I was happy for the opportunity and glad to move to New Jersey. But there were things that I had to leave behind. Especially, I needed to leave my way of life, the student life, for the first time. My life as a graduate student…it was financially challenging, but there was much freedom. I had weekends and long summer to enjoy. I only had duties and responsibilities for myself, nothing for others. Later, when all got settled that I would be really going to serve our church, my anxiety level got up. The role of a pastor seemed so big to me. So big. And it grew even bigger and bigger in my heart, pressing me down. What if something goes wrong? What if the church declines? What if the church members don’t like me? What if they don’t understand my Korean accent? Oh Lord, can I really do this? Am I really ready for this? I was not sure.
It was the day when I had the first meeting with our church members before getting officially appointed. From the Bronx, I drove across the George Washington Bridge to get to New Jersey and to Montclair. As crossing the Hudson River, on the bridge, I felt something deep. I felt that Jesus was asking me a question, “You left your home country for what? You left Boston for what? Now you leave the Bronx for what?” Then, I realized, “Yes, it’s been for my calling.” It was a moment of assurance. I don’t have to be afraid but just keep on following the call leaving my way behind.
Today’s Gospel story is a very famous calling narrative of Jesus’ first disciples. It’s early morning, and Simon Peter is cleaning his fishing nets after a miserable night out on the lake. He and his partners, James and John, sons of Zebedee, have worn themselves out, casting nets from dusk till dawn into the dark water. The sun rises, and unfortunately, they have nothing but sore muscles and weary hearts. Their nets are empty. Just then, Jesus shows up, steps into Simon’s boat, and tells him to “put out into the deep waterand let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). Simon protests with full of doubt, “Master, we have worked all night long.” But then he changes his mind and obeys, “Yet if you say so, I will” (5:5). Then, Peter and others have a miraculous catch that they have never seen before. Peter says to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) Then, Jesus calls him out from his shame and regret, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Luke 5:10). Simon Peter, James and John leave their way and follow the way of Jesus.
What brought you here today? As you left behind your warm and comfortable home today, I am so sure, it was Jesus who called you here. Let us go back a little bit more, what brought you to this church initially in the past? I am so sure, there was a calling like a nudge, like a whisper, or like a thunderstorm, that made you leave behind the way you were before to be children of God. And Jesus calls us now, calls us each and every day to make faithful disciples out of us, to make us, the sinners, walk his way of love and grace. Sometimes, we are doubtful and unfaithful, afraid and anxious, tired and weary. Sometimes, we think we are not qualified and not ready. But Jesus calls us anyway and asks us to walk with him as we are, as work-in-progresses.
In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul testifies, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). Paul was not just a sinner but a persecutor of the church. But Christ called him on the way to Damascus, on his way to destroy other churches. And by the grace of God, he became an apostle and founded many Christian communities. Today we believe, the same grace, which called Paul to leave his way, is with us; the same grace, which made an apostle out of the persecutor of the church, is with us today. With this grace, Jesus calls us to be his disciples. To follow his call, there is one thing we should do. We should leave our ways. Leave our ways to walk the way of Jesus. This is not just a life time decision, but it is also an everyday practice. Everyday leaving and following.
Now the call is clear to us. Leave the way of sin behind and follow the way of new life. Leave the way of hatred behind and follow the way of love. Leave the way of regrets, unresolved anger, attachments, past memories of rejection and hurt behind and follow the way of new life in peace and healing. Leave the way of discrimination and division behind and follow the way of reconciliation and unity. Leave the way we are, our strong intention and egotism behind and follow God’s will and the mind of Christ. And leave ourselves behind to become more Christ-like disciples. Keep on leaving and keep on following. Every day. Every moment. Jesus Christ is calling us. Are you ready?
Keep on believing in something even if it means sacrificing everything (Jeremiah 1:4-10) (1 Corinthians 13:1-13) (Luke 4:21-30)
For the next 5 weeks starting today until the beginning of the season of Lent, we will explore the Gospel of Luke and reflect on some life principles that conform to the way of Christ. I hope and pray that our journey may be fruitful as the Holy Spirit empowers us to keep on following the Jesus way of life.
You might have heard his name several times since 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a football player who was once a quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He has become renowned and influential for his political activism. What he did was to kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to NFL games. And he did it as a protest against racial injustice going on in the country. He says, he wanted to raise awareness of racism, social injustice and police brutality against “black people and people of color.” His action immediately set social media ablaze with debates. He was praised by some and denounced by others. And he hasn’t been signed by any teams since then. Last September, Nike made an advertisement campaign around Kaepernick. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” he says in that ad. And no doubt, it sparked another flood of reactions from different sides of people.
Today, as a preacher, I am not here to tell you if Kaepernick is politically right or wrong, nor about Nike’s marketing strategies. But I’m here today to ask you to think about his belief—not the contents of his belief but its quality, its intensity. His belief must be so strong that it led him to act boldly even if he ended up losing his career. Have we ever had such strong belief in something and acted on it like him? Have we ever believed in something so firmly, even if it means sacrificing important things in our lives? We are Christians. It means that we are believers, the believers of Jesus Christ. But have we ever sacrificed something in our life because of our belief?
If we read today’s Gospel story closely, we see Jesus uphold his belief in something, even if it offends the people big time, and the people almost throw him off a cliff. Here, we shouldn’t miss that these violent people are not strangers to Jesus; they are people in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. They are neighbors of Joseph and Mary. Even so, they try to kill him! What’s going on? Earlier on the same day, Jesus preached at the synagogue. He was center-stage reading a beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah and the people got impressed by his gracious words. They talked to one another, “Wasn’t this Joseph’s boy? The carpenter’s kid with the iffy birth story? Who would have imagined he’d grow up to become a healer! A preacher! A miracle worker!”Now, the hometown people assume, if their boy, Jesus, was willing to perform miracles to perfect strangers in other places, he would do a hundredfold back at home to his friends and neighbors.
But soon, their hope turns into frustration and their delight gives way to anger. From Jesus, the townspeople expect an answer like, “Sure, you got it!” But instead, Jesus tells them about the stories of God taking care of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger. Jesus says, God sent Elijah to take care of the widow at Zarephath—not the widows of Israel. And Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian—not the numerous lepers in Israel. What does he mean by telling these stories? Here, Jesus makes a clear point to the people. “You have no priority to receive the good news from me. God’s love must reach beyond hometown walls, beyond homeland borders, and for this, I came to the world—to break down the walls. So, don’t take me for granted just because I was born among you. Don’t think you are the only chosen people. God saves whomever believes in me.” That’s it. And people get infuriated and try to shove him off the cliff.
In this story, I think, Jesus shows us the way of belief. And on this way of belief, Jesus teaches us, we may endure sacrifices and risks; we may upset some people and not be welcomed like before. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Indeed, this ad slogan well fits Jesus’ message for us today. But here, the question is, what is that “something”? As the followers of Jesus Christ, what do we believe in spite of sacrifices? I understand, even though we all are Christians, we may hold different propositions of belief. Our life experiences and cultural backgrounds are different. But there is one essential belief, which can’t be diverted. And without this belief, we can’t be even called Christians. What is this belief? This is our belief in love, in God’s unconditional love for us.
Because of his belief in God’s boundary-crossing love, Jesus was threatened to death. And because of his belief in God’s unconditional love for us, later, Jesus even sacrificed his own life on the cross. Following Jesus, many faithful Christians in history believed in God’s love, even if it meant sacrificing everything. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. firmly believed in God’s love that overcomes any walls of discrimination, even if it meant sacrificing his life. Our belief in the power of love…without this belief, we are nothing. In his Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote these unforgettable words on love, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
Now, sisters and brothers in Christ, do we believe in God’s love firmly and act on this belief even if it comes with hardships and difficulties in life? I know, sacrificing everything sounds too much to us. But can we at least give up our convenience, our safety, our comfort, our ego, our will, our pride, for our belief in God’s love? Look around the landscape of our life in this country. Can you see the wall of hatred, bigotry, and division? Can you see the swamp of anger, depression, and hopelessness? Can you see the wild fire of violence, injustice, and oppression? Can you see the shadow of selfish desire, greed, and materialism? Here, do you really believe that the power of love can change something now? We shall say, “yes,” to this question with no hesitation. The Christian answer to all the questions from the world shall be love. Without this Christ’s love, we are nothing. So, let’s proclaim together following Paul, “I believe in love that is patient and kind; that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I believe in love that does not insist on its own way; that is not irritable or resentful. I believe in love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. And I believe, this love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And this love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). I pray, we keep on believing in this love, even if it means sacrificing everything. Amen.
Debie Thomas, “Leaving Home,” The Journey with Jesus (accessed January 31, 2019: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2067-leaving-home).