Do you believe that God treats everyone equally? Does God create us to be equal, the same? I’m quite sure, our God does not. Look at the emerging California homeless crisis. I heard, homeless population in Los Angeles is reaching sixty thousand this year, mainly because of skyrocketing rent and lack of affordable housings. In Los Angeles, in this city of stars, the city famous for its rich towns and gated communities, this crisis is happening. How about New York City? Annual American Community Survey shows, among the 30 most populous US cities, New York tops in the inequality between the superrich and the extreme poor. And we don’t have to go too far. Look at the children in our church, Amelia, Avery, Jayden, Benjamin, Noah…and think about the children in refugee camps, detention centers, children’s hospitals, and orphanages. Do you still believe that our God is equal to everyone? Well, it’s hard to believe that.
Since the beginning of the world, although in varying degrees, social inequality and economic discrepancy have been unchanging reality of the world. There have been always people like the rich man and people like Lazarus in today’s Gospel story. Yes, Jesus somehow reveals us this unquestionable reality of the world in his story. And what’s more interesting is that he shows us, there’s inequality even in the afterlife between the saved and the condemned.
Let’s look into the story. It goes like a play with three acts. The first act: The Gate. The rich man lives inside the gate of his house, dresses himself in purple and fine linen, and feasts sumptuously every day. In contrast, poor Lazarus lives outside the gate. His famished body is nothing but skin and bones and covered with sores. He fills his hunger with what falls from the rich man’s table. The second act: The Chasm. This act portrays the reversal of their situation in the afterlife. Between the chasm, Lazarus is happily on the saved side with Abraham and the rich man is on the condemned side in flames of agony. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus and give him a drop of water but it’s impossible because of the chasm that no one can cross over. Now, the third act: The Rich Man’s Request. The rich man requests Abraham to send a warning to those still living so that they can avoid torment. But the request is denied.
So here, what’s the point? What is Jesus trying to teach us? At least, we get this: equality is not his main concern. In this world and after, everyone doesn’t get the same things anyway—same wealth or same redemption. There’s always unavoidable disparity. There’s the gate of inequality in reality. There’s the chasm of judgment in the afterlife. So what? Does Jesus ask us to turn the world upside down and build the revolutionary world of complete equality? Then, does Jesus ask us to support some kind of communist or socialist ideals? I don’t think so. But from the story, I believe, there’s one thing that Jesus wants us to learn as clearly as possible. That is, God, whom we believe and the Bible testifies, may not be the God of equality, but this God surely is the God of Justice.
Yes, God is just. Therefore, to God’s just eyes, to be rich is not an issue, but it is evil to be careless of other people’ needs and to be indifferent to their suffering and pain. To God’s just eyes, the rich man doesn’t have to be equal to Lazarus. He doesn’t have to eat and sleep next to Lazarus outside the gate of his house. However, it is sinful not to open the gate to Lazarus, not to invite him over to his table, not to share a little bit of his wealth with him. Then, what about us? To God’s just eyes, how would we look like? How would our church look like? And what about our society? To God’s just eyes, wouldn’t it be wrong if our social system hardly opens the gate of privileges and wealth to the disenfranchised? To God’s just eyes, wouldn’t it be wicked if our economic system widens the chasm between the rich and the poor and makes the rich richer and the poor poorer?
The Hebrew Bible tells us, our God of justice has a dream for a just world—the world of jubilee. To make this dream a reality, God gives God’s people the commandment of the year of jubilee, the every seventh year when debts are canceled and slaves are freed. And God asks them to make their land a place where the powerful lift up the week, where the rich share things with the poor. God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deut. 15:11).
The New Testament tells us, our God of justice still has a dream for a just world—the world of liberation, the world free from sin and death. To make this dream a reality, God sent the Son Jesus Christ. And Jesus reveals us, God’s justifying grace is greater than our sins; God’s steadfast love is more powerful than death. And finally, with his cross of sacrifice, Jesus built a bridge over the chasm of judgment, and with his power of resurrection, Jesus opened the gate of salvation for all who believe in him.
And today, our God of justice calls us to dream God’s dream together, calls us to join God’s mission to make this dream for a just world come true. God calls us to open our doors so that we may someday tear down the gate of inequality in our society. And God calls us to share with others the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of justification and freedom, so that all of them may also find the new life across the bridge over the chasm of judgement.
Last Sunday, because of the Rally Day outdoor event, the church door was wide open until the afternoon. And I met two different persons in need who just walked inside the church and found me. I heard their stories of struggles and prayed for them. And because there were no Shop Rites gift cards left at the moment, I had to ask them to come and see me again on Tuesday. One of them came back and took bags of food and gift cards. Anyway, as I sent both of them from the church last Sunday, I realized, by just opening the door, our church had opportunities to serve them, to share something with them. That something may not be significant materially and spiritually. But that service, that sharing, is the reason why we are here… here to make this world a little bit closer to a just world, the world that God dreams of.
The Bible tells us clearly. Our God is the God of Justice, and this God commands us to act justly against social evils like poverty. So let us keep our doors open and share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. Let us participate in the missions of our church, missions of United Methodist Women, Souper Saturday, Irvington Feeding, Thanksgiving Feeding, food drive, cookie drive. And let us join the work of inviting people to our worship service, Bible study, small groups, and to the table of fellowship. Again, faithful friends in Jesus Christ, let us keep our doors open and share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. This is the reason why we are here. Let us make this world more just together. Let us dream God’s dream together… the dream for the world of jubilee and liberation, the dream for the kingdom of God where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.
Today we are celebrating Rally Day, the day we officially kick off our new season of ministries, especially, the ministry of Christian education. As I prepared my sermon last few weeks looking forward to this Sunday, I asked myself, what kind of message should I deliver? What kind of message can be most vital for us today as we begin this new season? I tried to find an answer one day but it was hard. I ate chocolate and tried. I drank another cup of coffee and tried. I walked around and tried. Still I couldn’t get a good answer. So I stopped thinking for a while and just started to check my Facebook.
There, I saw many friends of mine posted pictures of their children going to their school on the first day of new school year. I found this cute picture of Dana among them too. Browsing through their posts, I wondered: how would my friends feel when they send their children to the schools? How would they feel…when they realize that they cannot be there for their children whenever they need them? Some friends of mine say, it feels so good to finally get some free time after a long summer vacation wrestling with their kids. But I’m also sure, it’s not just a happy-all-the-way kind of feeling. They must be worried somewhat and might be a little anxious as they send their children away…away from their sight, away from their 24/7 care and protection.
Among the pictures, one picture caught my attention. It was the picture of my friend’s daughter who just entered college this year. Under the picture, my friend left a short reflection. While driving his daughter to college, he thought, he would drop her off and then come back right away. But as soon as he got to her dorm room, he couldn’t help inspecting everything top to bottom. He sat on her bed and chair, tapped on her desk, opened and closed the window, turned the faucet on and off in the restroom, turned the light on and off. After the long security sweep, he finally said good bye to his daughter and left. But his heart was heavy and unrelieved on his way back…until he got a moment of grace. While driving, with no specific reason, he found himself humming the hymn, God Will Take Care of You. “Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you; beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you. God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way; he will take care of you, God will take care of you.” That moment he got the assurance that even though he just left his daughter, God will never leave her; God will be with her and take care of her.
Today, as we begin our new season of ministry and new chapter of our life, I believe no other message can be more foundational than this. God is with you. God never leaves my friend’s freshman daughter; God never leaves our children; God never leaves you; God never leaves our church…God is with you always. Even though you cannot be there for your children, or for your family and friends all the time, even though you are all alone, God is always with you. And God will take care of you.
This faith in our ever-present God doesn’t come out of nowhere. The whole Bible testifies, God is love, and out of this love, God seeks a reconciled relationship and a fellowship with us. The Bible tells us, God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God visits Moses in the burning bush to save God’s people from slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn them back from their wrong ways. And finally, God came down to earth in Jesus. And after Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus abides in us. Hear the Psalm for today, how beautifully the Psalmist sings the love of God in God’s everlasting presence. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psalm 139:7-10).
Out of love, God comes to us and abides in our lives. This surely is good news for us. And this surely gives us a meaning and reason to live in confidence, live without fear. Paul proclaims, “If God is for us, who is against us?.... Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?.... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:31;35;37). In this inseparable love, in the inescapable presence of God, we know and believe, we can do all things, and we can triumph over any troubles and any challenges in life. What a grace it is! This might be why, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, “Best of it all is, God is with us.”
One day an inspiring Christian writer, Henri Nouwen received a letter from a man who desperately wanted to know if humanity would survive the century. It’s so funny because Rev. Nouwen is a priest—not a disaster-prediction expert. Does this man know to whom he is writing? Anyway, to this broad and a little wacky question, Rev. Nouwen answers in a beautiful and meaningful way. You can find the whole letter here in this book, Love, Henri: Letters on Spiritual Life.
I really don’t know if our civilization will survive the century. Considering the growing threat of a nuclear holocaust, there certainly is a reason to wonder. But important for me is not if our civilization will survive or not, but if we can continue to live with hope, and I really think we can, because our Lord [Jesus Christ] has given us his promise that he will stay with us at all times. He is the God of the living, [Jesus] has overcome evil and death and His love is stronger than any form of death and destruction. That is why I feel that we should continually avoid the temptation of despair and deepen our awareness that God is present in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us and that that presence allows us to live joyfully and peacefully in a world so filled with sorrow and conflict. Please be sure of my prayers for you in these tempting times.
Our lives are uncertain. We don’t know what will happen next. We can’t see what kind of untrodden road will unfold before us, before our children, before our family and friends, and before our church. A nicely paved road? A rocky road? A treacherous cliff-side road? Facing this uncertainty, we are worried and anxious. And in the world, there are full of reasons to fear and despair. Mass shootings, bullies, hate crimes, racism, sexism, natural disasters, and accidents…there are so many things letting us down and fret. But as Rev. Nauwen tells us, for the believers of Jesus Christ, the important thing is not if we can survive uncertainty, but if we can live with hope, deepen our awareness that God is with us in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us, and reject the urge for worry and despair.
And we are able do this as the believers of Jesus Christ, because Jesus has given us his promise that he will stay with us at all times. At the very last moment of his ascension, Jesus tells his disciples and us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Today as we begin our new season of ministry, new chapter of life, let us remember just this: nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing can move us away from the everlasting presence of God. So go now with deep confidence in the presence of our God in your life and talk to your children, talk to your family and friends, and talk to yourself every day, “God loves you. God is with you. God will take care of you.” Amen.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on Spiritual Life (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), 45.
As I live with my dog, Eco, one of the major challenges I have to deal with on a daily basis is her shedding. Eco has a silky coat with smooth hair. And she sheds a lot every day. So I have to vacuum my house regularly, and always carry a Scotch roller with me to remove her hair from my clothes. There are a couple in my car all the time. Does it bother me? To be honest, it’s annoying sometimes. And I think, to those who have a higher standard of cleanness and hygiene than me, it could be a real issue.
Among many people I know, there’s one person who has the highest standard of cleanness and hygiene. And that person happens to be my mom. One day, Jee Hei and I got the news that she would visit us for about a month. It meant, she was going to meet Eco for the first time. We were so worried. So before she came, we not just sanitized our house but almost sterilized it from top to bottom. The day came at last. My mom arrived. As soon as she entered the house, I could see she was scanning every corner. Then, Eco came to greet her. My mom immediately noticed her shedding. And we were so scared waiting for her judgement, her verdict. But to our surprise, she was alright with that! And she had such a good time with Eco during the entire stay.
How come? It’s because my mom fell in love with Eco. Yes, it was the power of love. Of course, she complained about her shedding sometimes. But above all, she enjoyed staying with Eco. Since then, every time we talk on the phone, she asks me, “How is Eco doing?” And these days, she is even considering adopting a dog. That surprises me so much. Love changes many things. Doesn’t it? Once my mom began to love Eco, the joy of companionship she found with Eco overcame the annoyance of picking up her hair all day long. True, love has a power… power that enables us to find joy over judgment.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is hanging out with sinners. The so-called sinners are gathered around him and listening to him. Looking at this, the Pharisees and the scribes, the religious leaders in Jesus’s days, grumble, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They don’t understand Jesus’s behavior. But here, the question is, “Doesn’t Jesus know that the people he’s hanging out are sinners?” What do you think? I am so sure, Jesus knows it, and he knows much better than the Pharisees and the scribes about their sins. But he’s different. The Pharisees and the scribes only judge those people as sinners, and that’s it. But Jesus, even though he knows and judges their sins, he still stays with the sinners. How come? It’s because Jesus loves them. With love, Jesus finds joy over judgment, finds a way of joyful relationship beyond judgmental exclusion.
To the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus tells two parables about this love finding joy over judgment. In the first one, a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine to look for one single lamb that is lost. He searches until he finds it, and when he does, he carries that one lamb home on his shoulders, invites his friends and neighbors over, and throws a party to celebrate. The shepherd says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the second parable, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins. Immediately, she lights up a lamp and sweeps her entire house, looking carefully for the coin until she finds it. When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to celebrate. She says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
These parables clearly teach us today, with his amazing love, Jesus finds the lost, the sinners like us. Here in this church today, is there anyone who can confidently say, I’m blameless, I’m not a sinner at all? I think no one can say that. Jesus knows and judges our sins. But above all, he still loves us. And this love changes many things. Although we sometimes go astray like the sheep and get lost like the coin, Jesus seeks us again, turns us back to his love, and rejoices with us. And until he finds us, he desperately searches for us like the good shepherd, like the woman sweeping her entire house. His love doesn’t just give us up for our sins. Rather, his love always looks for the joy of having us back, the joy of acceptance and relationship, the joy of forgiveness and salvation, over judgmental rejection and punishment. This is the good news!
So as the followers of Jesus, who have this good news, what shall we do now? How should we live our lives? The answer is very simple and straightforward. We should love like Jesus. In detail, we should love one another with the love finding joy over judgment. I know, as humans, we can be judgmental to one another and pick up small things from one another. We often say, “That’s wrong. Why does he or she do that? That’s not right.” And I know, we come to church to be better human beings. So sometimes, as we try to be good, we apply a quite high moral and ethical standard to one another. And in this way, the church can become a judgmental place. Yes, it’s natural for us to be judgmental. I get it. But if we stop there, if we stop at judging others and don’t do more than that, we become just the same as other groups of people, just the same as the grumbling Pharisees and the scribes in today’s Gospel story.
Again, what shall we do as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ? We should love like Jesus. In detail, we should love one another with the love finding joy over judgment. Even though we see others’ mistakes, faults and shortcomings, even though we sometimes get hurt by others’ wrongdoings, please remember, we are called to love one another over our judgement. And we are called to rejoice with one another as we follow Jesus together. With our love, let us make our church a place of joy, the joy of acceptance and relationship, the joy of forgiveness and salvation. And let us make our church a place for sinners where all can come and listen to Jesus, a place for the lost where all are found by Jesus again. When we were yet sinners, Jesus loved us first, found us, and shared the heavenly joy with us. And in spite of all our sins, he still loves us. What a grace it is! So today, let us love like Jesus. Love one another in spite of their sins, find joy over judgment, and say, “Jesus loves you no matter what. So do I.” Amen.
On our vacation, Jee Hei and I visited Acadia National Park in Maine. It was already our third time going there, but it was beautiful and refreshing as always. Every time we go up there, we see a special welcoming sign entering the border of Maine. It says, “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be.” Have you ever seen this before? I don’t know what kind of life they’re talking about, but it’s quite an attractive slogan. Isn’t it? The way life should be…the words always make me smile. And it takes me back to the beautiful coastlines and mountains of Maine and brings me the memories of great wild life, outdoor activities, lobsters, and so on.
This year, I also passed that sign again. And of course, I got very excited. As we were about an hour away from Acadia, Jee Hei and I stopped by our friend’s house for lunch. He’s a United Methodist pastor who started serving a church in Maine last year and recently had twins. So it was really great to see him and his family. While catching up, he talked about many things… you know, things good and bad, happy and sad. He also shared some hardships he had gone through there. One of them was the winter season of Maine. He said it was the longest and coldest winter he had ever experienced. He even got a little depression so decided to go to a gym for some physical activities. And it wasn’t easy for him to live in a small rural town with no close friends, no other family members living near him. But he had endured them all for his ministry.
Listening to him, I felt like I got a reality check. Maine can be a wonderful place for people like me who visit there for a vacation, but it’s not always refreshing and beautiful for those who actually live there and make their living. Yes, we all know, life ain’t all sunshine and rainbow, not like a vacation. “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be,” the slogan proudly told me, “life in Maine is great. You will love it.” And it totally got me for a while and made me only see nice things about Maine. But leaving my friend’s house, the slogan began to sound a little different to me. How should our life be anyway?
Through his ministry, one of the main missions Jesus carried out was to show people the way life should be. Many people got fascinated by Jesus. They witnessed amazing miracles and wonders. They saw Jesus silence religious leaders and cast out demons with divine authority. No wonder, large crowds traveled along with Jesus wherever he went as today’s Gospel reading says (Luke 14:25). The crowds believe that Jesus is the true savior, the king, the Messiah. With him, their days of suffering and pain are over and they are going to walk a rosy and shiny way of glory. Yes, with Jesus, that’s the way life should be. They are quite sure about this, but indeed, they misunderstand Jesus a big time.
So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus looks like giving the crowd a moment of reality check and clarifying the way of life he’s been talking about. So, what kind of solution is offered for this reality check? One thing for sure, Jesus’ solution is not a pep talk, not even close. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” Jesus tells the large crowds. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14:26-27). If these two warnings are not frightful or bold enough, then here comes the third one: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33).
Isn’t it strange? Here, Jesus looks like trying so hard to not only disillusion the crowds but also scare them away. We understand, Jesus wants not fans or spectators but disciples. And we know, Jesus wants followers who understand the cost of discipleship—its commitment and its cross. But his words are unnecessarily strong. Needless to say, those hyperboles of Jesus must have frustrated the crowds and scattered them away. No doubt, most of them must have returned home. But then, what happened in reality?
I don’t know whether the solution of Jesus was successful or not, but one thing I can tell you is that although the large crowds disappeared, the disciples still followed Jesus. It seems nothing special. But the disciples still followed Jesus. After the shocking reality check, they must have been also confused and overwhelmed like the crowds. Nevertheless, they kept on following Jesus. We know, Jesus’ disciples were not noble people. They were a group of people including even a rebel, a tax collector, and some Galilean fishermen. Nevertheless, they simply accepted, Jesus is the way. And they followed him as disciples, because they believed, that’s the way their life should be. The disciples failed Jesus many times; they still didn’t fully understand Jesus’s mission; they often argued with one another who’s better. Nevertheless, they followed Jesus. And they took part in Jesus’ ministry and eventually, prepared the way of the Lord—the way of the cross.
Listening to Jesus’s scary warning today, we may get disappointed too. We may feel like it’s truly hard to be a disciple… almost impossible. But let us think about these disciples of Jesus one more time. To be a disciple… perhaps, it all begin with simply not leaving Jesus after the large crowds went away. Perhaps it all begin with simple decision to follow Jesus from where we are now. Who are you today coming all the way from home and joining this worship service to reflect on your life and faith? Who are you today burdened and distressed yet wanting to find God’s peace and grace? Who are you today waking up early on a Sunday morning and bringing your family to this church? Who are you today facing all the challenges in life yet trying hard not to be away from Jesus? Who are you? Are you the disciples? Yes. You. Are.
Although our life is not all sunshine and rainbow, not always like a vacation, although our life is more like a race that requires our commitment, sacrifice, struggle, and fight, can we still follow Jesus? Faithful friends in Christ, let us keep on following Jesus and walking with him the way of cross. Keep on loving. Keep on serving. Keep on believing. Keep on forgiving. Keep on gathering. Keep on encouraging. Keep on struggling. Keep on hoping. Keep on praying. Keep on running the faithful race no matter where we are. Then, by God’s grace, I believe, our life becomes the life in the kingdom of peace and justice, the life in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the life in the power of Jesus Christ our Lord who always leads our life into hopes and wonders, forgiveness and liberation, joy and thanksgiving. Let us follow Jesus. It is the way disciples’ life should be. Amen.