Today’s Hebrew Bible reading is from the Book of Deuteronomy. The book’s name, Deuteronomy, is a compound word of deutero, which means, “second,” and nomy, which means, nomos, “the law.” So it tells us that the book is about a “second enactment of the law,” or “recapitulation of the law.” Then, why did people give such title to the book? In the Book of Exodus, Moses receives the commandments at Mount Sinai and the people of Israel affirm them for the first time on their way to the Promised Land. Then, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel finally reach the Promised Land after their long, long wandering in the wilderness. But here Moses can’t go with the people because he is dying. Before letting the people go by themselves, this great leader and prophet Moses delivers his last sermon to ensure the people of Israel to reaffirm the commandments for the second time. This is why Deuteronomy has such title.
Then, what’s in Moses’ last word? With his love and care for the people of Israel, Moses not only restates the commandments but also asks them to remember what God has done for them. In many parts of Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes the act of remembrance… of how God has raised a nation from Abraham and how God has tirelessly worked among them and brought them to the Promised Land. Look at today’s Hebrew Bible reading, “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments…. then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:11; 14; 16-18). “Remember the Lord, your God. Remember what God has done for you thus far. And never forget.” This must be the core message that Moses delivers at the end of his life to the people of Israel and to all God’s people for centuries.
But here is the question. What does it exactly mean to remember? Just recognize and memorize what happened in the past like we do in a history class? I think what Moses meant is more than that.
Last Sunday, I deeply experienced what it means to remember the Lord my God in my life. I was in Boston attending the annual meeting of American Academy of Religion. Boston was the first city that I lived in the US, and I lived there for four years with Jee Hei. Of course I have a full of great memories about Boston, and also memories of struggles and challenges like any other immigrants do. But to me, Boston is like a hometown in the US. Taking advantage of staying there on Sunday, I visited the church that I had visited on the very first Sunday in the US, where I experienced the first worship service in English. It happened to be a Methodist Church.
Union United Methodist Church in downtown Boston, it is. At that time, I went there because of my friend, who is now an Elder in the New England Conference. He preached on that Sunday as a student pastor. And the senior pastor was the late Bishop Martin McLee. It was a beautiful worship service, even though I couldn’t understand most parts.
Anyway, I went to the church quite early (believe me, it was early) and sat in a pew. As soon as I sat down, I felt emotionally overwhelmed. It was a very strange and unexpected experience. There, I encountered my past self who has been long-forgotten…my past self who was sitting there ten years ago, fresh off the boat, confused and afraid, didn’t know how to navigate his life, wasn’t sure where to begin, and was just curled himself up in a corner wishing to be alone. Sitting in a pew, as an Elder in the United Methodist church, I remembered my journey for the last ten years in the US. And it became crystal clear to me that it is no one but God who has guided me thus far, who already had visions and plans for me even when I couldn’t find them, who has shaped my life whether I noticed it or not, and who has raised me to be something from nothing. The Spirit strongly moved in my heart, and I praised the Lord singing with others the hymn, “I will trust in the Lord.” It goes, “I will trust in the Lord, I will trust in the Lord, I will trust in the Lord, till I die, until I die…” That was so powerful and I cried, cried, and cried. Tears of joy and gratefulness sprang up from the bottom of my heart.
In the worship service, I deeply realized what it is to remember the Lord our God. Indeed, the act of remembrance is not just to passively recognize or memorize what happened in our past. But rather, the act of remembrance is to re-member, put our past and the present together in a thread, and see it from the perspective of our faith in God. So this act of remembrance enables us to realize how God has led our ways. We may realize through all those ups and downs, through all those good days and bad days, through all those happiness and miseries in our lives, God has faithfully walked with us and shaped our lives with grace upon grace. And as a result, the act of remembrance leads us to reaffirm our faith in God with our gratitude.
Today we are celebrating our church’s 189th Anniversary. And we want to remember how God has been faithful to our church through all those years and made good disciples for the transformation of the world. Also, today is the commitment Sunday, the last day of the stewardship campaign this year. And we want to remember how God has faithfully cared for us and granted us many blessings even through the vicissitude of the seasons. As we do, let us also re-member, put our history together, and see it through our eyes of faith. Then, we will surely realize the faithful guidance and the helping hands of God. And then, we will gladly reaffirm our faith in God with our deepest gratitude. Hear the message of Moses again for the first time, “Remember the Lord your God and bless the Lord your God!” Remember God’s love and grace in your life. And never forget the presence of the Spirit in your whole life. And all God’s people say, amen.
“Fortune” is the word that originated from the name of the goddess, Fortuna.
Fortuna was the goddess of chance or luck in Roman religion. She was a very popular deity and worshipped all over the Roman Empire. She was believed to be the bearer of prosperity and increase, the giver of fertility to the soil and to women, and the oracle of fortunes in the future. As you can see in the picture, she is often depicted with some items in her hands. One of them is a wheel. And it is called the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae). In medieval philosophy, this wheel was a symbol of human fate.
All people in the world are hanging on the wheel. On top of the wheel, a fortunate person like a king is enjoying good life. Under the wheel, an unfortunate person is going through suffering. On its left and right sides, one person is going up to fortune and the other one going downhill. The position of people can change at any given moment whenever the goddess, Fortuna, randomly spins the wheel. So this wheel represents the capricious and relative nature of fortune. Fortune comes arbitrarily. And while someone enjoys fortune, others suffer misfortune. Indeed, this artistic rendering of Fortuna tells us exactly what fortune means.
Now you may be curious about the reason that I’m sharing the detailed meaning of fortune with you today, especially before we meditate on Jesus’ words on the Beatitudes—God’s supreme blessings. The reason is simple. It’s because we better examine our understanding, our pre-conceived notion of blessing before we look into the true meaning of blessing that Jesus actually talks about. Yes, in fact, our concept of blessing is sometimes mixed with the concept of fortune. And we often habitually misuse “blessing” when we have to use “fortune” instead.
“Oh, I’m feeling blessed.” “That is a blessing of God.” How many times do we say like this? We also habitually say, “Oh, God blessed me with some good things… my new job, good health, successful children, and so on.” As Christians, we naturally attribute all the good things happening in our lives to God and feel grateful. Yes, I get it. And there is nothing wrong with giving thanks to God always. However, we should be very careful when we say the word “blessing” in those cases. It’s because if we claim that God blesses us with a new job, good health, successful children, those who do not have such things become unblessed. Think about it. Can we say that God especially blesses the multi-millionaires in America and doesn’t bless, or even curses, miserable kids scavenging food on the street in some poor countries? Never. The God, who randomly grants special favor to some people and leaves others to suffer the lack of sufficient food, clean water, or medical care, cannot be the God whom Jesus calls the loving Father. Whenever we misunderstand God’s blessing in this way, we are actually degrading our God of abundant grace just to be the goddess Fortuna who spins the wheel of fortune.
Then, what does Jesus talk about God’s blessing? Who is blessed and what is the true blessing? From today’s Gospel reading, we find the most revolutionary teaching that transforms our perspective on blessing upside down, inside out. Who are blessed? Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit (or just the poor in the Gospel of Mark)… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account (Matthew 5:1-12).” Here, Jesus clearly tells us, all these seemingly unfortunate people in the world are actually blessed. They are the blessed regardless of their misfortune or distress. Jesus sharply separates the matter of blessing from the matter of fortune. Jesus also says, “Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers.” We don’t know whether these kinds of people are materially fortunate or not, but again, regardless of their external fortune, they are blessed as Jesus affirms.
Then, what is God’s true blessing? The blessings that Jesus list in his teaching are only about having the kingdom of heaven, having comfort of God, inheriting the new earth, having mercy in heart, seeing God, and being the children of God. All these blessings are different from a new job, good health, or successful children. And from the Beatitudes, we find that the true blessing is to know God and be in a relationship with this God… the God who releases the captives, who brings hope to the hopeless, who forgives unforgivable, who loves the unlovable, who comes to the people in the darkness. This God became a human like us, and died on the cross for our salvation. Having a personal relationship with this God, and having God’s saving grace and love, renewing care and comfort through that relationship beyond any measure… this is the true blessing that Jesus is teaching us today. This blessing is not arbitrarily given. It comes to us only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And this blessing is available to everyone.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, in our lifetime on earth, we may be relatively fortunate or unfortunate from our human point of view. But I hope you to remember today, the absolute truth we uphold is that we are blessed no matter what, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. It doesn’t matter whether we live a fortunate life or not; what matters most is that we live our life with God’s blessing and sharing the blessing with others. On this All Saints Sunday, we commemorate the saints who faithfully walked the journey of salvation before us. Saints are not the people who pursued fortunes in the world, but we know that they had blessed lives in God. Therefore, follow their example, forward through the ages, let us also walk the path of blessings in unending line, in loving communion with saints, and in sacred union with Jesus Christ. May the Lord bless us always. Amen.