It was 2010, near the Christmas season. Back then I was living in Boston. I took a daytrip to New York City. Walking down the Fifth Avenue, I saw many luxury shops and department stores with their dazzling Christmas luminaries and neon signs.
It was quite a view. Who doesn’t like the Christmas season in New York City? But soon, from the opposite side of the Fifth Avenue, a group of homeless people came to my eyes. They were lying on the church steps and trying to sleep in their temporary shelter made of some boxes. People may say that it’s just a normal street scene of New York City. But on that day, I couldn’t pass it by. I just couldn’t ignore the stark contrast between this side and that side of the Fifth Avenue, the austere juxtaposition of the privileged and the deprived. On the same street, some enjoyed Christmas season buying gifts, and some tried to sleep on the street enduring a cold winter night. It didn’t look normal to me. The short distance between two sides of the street seemed endlessly wide. The glittering lights from the shops, which I got amazed at, were reflected on the withered faces of the homeless. It brought me to a sad awakening to the reality of the world that I live in.
Living our lives, we all have some moments when we say, “something’s seriously wrong with our world.” How frequently do you say that? Everyday? In our hearts, we all feel that the world should change somehow. And we all need to make differences in the world so that the world becomes a better place. But then, the question is…what kind of world are we envisioning? Do we have any concrete model of the good world? Not sure? True, it’s a difficult question to answer. But the good news is that for us, there is a certain model of the good world. Yes, there is a better world that we are called to make together here and now. “The kingdom of heaven.” That’s what Jesus calls this world.
In his parable for today, Jesus gives us a description of the kingdom of heaven with the story of a landowner. But according to the story, the landowner seems very strange. This landowner goes out to hire laborers for his vineyard five times on the same day. Five. Times. He goes to a marketplace in the early morning, at nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock, and even at five o’clock. Why does he do such a thing? Does he have a lot of work to do in his vineyard? And it is also very weird to see that there are still some people waiting for a job at five o’clock. In reality, no one can be hired at the end of the day for a daily job. That’s impossible. Then, why are they waiting for a job until then? They must be so desperate that they need any kind of opportunity to work. They just can’t go back home with nothing in their hands.
All these are strange enough, but the most bizarre thing has yet to come. At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard pays the same daily wage to all the laborers no matter how many hours they worked. What’s happening here? This is totally unfair. The laborers who have worked for all day, of course, grumble to the landowner, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Matthew 20:11-12). I think they can surely say that. And it’s true that the laborers are unfairly treated and not getting their proper due.
Then, from this strange landowner, what can we tell about the kingdom of heaven? What kind of the world are we called to make? Let us look at closely. The landowner tries to hire as many people as possible. He intentionally pays his effort to check if there are more desperate people in the marketplace and makes sure those people can also have the same opportunity to work. Then, he pays all the laborers equally. From this, we see that the landowner is managing his business not for the profit of the vineyard but for the benefit of the laborers. This landowner has much more interest in bringing people in and giving them opportunities, than increasing the income from the vineyard business. And more revolutionarily, the landowner pays the laborers according to not what they deserve but what they need. Indeed, the landowner looks very strange because he turns the usual rules of the world upside down.
From the landowner, we see that the kingdom of heaven is not a place ruled by “first come first serve.” It is not a place ruled by competition. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is the place where all are welcome at anytime, and where people always have a chance to live again by the grace of the owner. This is the place of grace. Also from the landowner, we learn that the kingdom of heaven is the place where people are not measured by what they deserve. It is not a place ruled by fairness. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is the place where all receive what they need by the grace of the owner, no matter who they are. Yes, again, this is the place of grace, the grace that is always given to us beyond our merit and beyond our fair measure.
Today, Jesus is giving us a concrete model of the world that we are called to make; it is the kingdom of heaven ruled by grace. Then, how can we make it? It seems like an impossible challenge. But I believe… if there were more Christians who run their business for the purpose of sharing more benefit and wealth with others, the world would become one step closer to the kingdom of heaven. If there were more Christians who put their focus not on their own thriving but on the well-being of all the people around them, the world would become a bit more like the kingdom of heaven. If there were Christians who actively search out those who are in their desperate need and help them before they ask, the world would become the world ruled by grace. And I believe… if we would love, forgive, and welcome as many people as we can, not because they deserve them but because they need them, we would be already making the kingdom on earth. If we would seriously think how to reveal God’s grace through our ministry and through our acts and deeds, the vision of God’s kingdom would become much clearer in our hearts day by day. Be gracious. Be merciful. Change the world with God’s grace a little by little.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, from today, let grace rule our hearts. Let grace rule our church. And let grace rule anywhere we go. Until Jesus comes in his final victory and makes his kingdom complete, let us keep our precious call to bring out the kingdom of heaven here and now. Keep the graceful landowner in your hearts. And have and share the vision of the new world. May God’s grace be with all of us beyond our measure always. Amen.
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.