Take power away from politicians,
And see what’s left.
Take money away from the rich,
And see what’s left.
Take authority away from clergy,
And see what’s left.
Take knowledge away from intellectuals,
And see what’s left.
What’s left after those things are taken away is what they truly are.
Take soul away from me.
Take love away from me.
Take justice away from me.
Even so, if I still am alive,
Even so, if I still live on as though nothing has happened,
Who am I?
Who truly am I?
"What’s Left" – Rohae Park
Today, this simple poem invites us to a mindful reflection on our lives with some in-depth questions: “What is at the core of our life? What is the essence, the sine qua non, without which we are not truly alive and without which we cannot live on?” Here, this poet suggests a simple practice for us to come up with certain answers. I think we can call this practice the practice of imaginary deduction. It’s like we imagine taking something away from us, something seemingly significant and crucial to our life. And as we get rid of those things one by one, we will get to the point where we can tell what’s really indispensable to us among what’s left. At that imaginary point, we may find what matters most in our lives, the essential threads that make up our true selves among all the other threads that are just woven into the complicated fabric of life. For this poet, he writes, such things are soul, love, and justice. How noble he is! Then, for us, what are those essential things? What makes us truly be ourselves?
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus invites his disciples to do a similar practice. He asks them to take human things away from their sight and see clearly what’s most essential to their lives. On the way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Then, Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). The Messiah…this Hebrew word, means God’s chosen and anointed one. After long years of exile and oppression in their history, the people of Israel eagerly looked for the restoration of glorious and powerful David’s kingdom. And they believed that God would finally fulfill God’s promise by anointing a powerful leader, a messiah. Peter also believed in this promise of God. So, as he followed Jesus and witnessed him do miracles with divine power, he became so confident about Jesus being that Messiah. And that’s why he can easily give this answer to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”
But see Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer. He talks about the suffering, rejection, and death that he will have to go through, not the victory, dominion, and glory that a messiah is supposed to achieve. Peter cannot understand this. “What kind of messiah is he?” Or more honestly, he was asking to himself, “What benefit can I get by following this man?” “What good can he do for me?” No…for Peter, Jesus shouldn’t die like that. So he takes Jesus aside and even rebukes him, saying: “What on earth does a messiah undergo such things?” Then, Jesus rejects Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:33-34).
Jesus knows that even though Peter gives him the right answer, “You are the Messiah,” Peter’s heart is full of human things so he misunderstands what’s truly essential to his life. To this Peter, Jesus may have asked, “Take your human desire for power and honor, dominion and glory away from you. Take your misled expectation and selfish ambition away from you. Take all those human things away from you. In short, deny yourself! Then, see what’s left. What’s left in you? Is my cross left in you? Is my love still alive in you? Am I still there in your life as your Savior? Then, set your mind on those divine things that I place in your life without any price…Jesus may have asked Peter like this. And I am sure, if Jesus were here with us, he would have asked us the same.
Today we are celebrating Rally Sunday as we begin our church’s new season of ministry and as we start our new discipleship and educational programs. But for a fresh start of our church and our lives, what do we need to do first? I think we should do some cleaning first…especially, a cleaning of our hearts. For this spiritual cleaning, we need to take human things away from us, our egos, our will, our pride, our judgment…So let’s take those things away from us and then, see what’s left… see what’s left. Is Jesus Christ still left in our hearts as our Savior and as our friend? Is his cross standing and shining with God’s love and grace somewhere in our hearts? Then, follow him and take up the cross. Yes, we can start from there, again and again, as all the history of Jesus’ followers, the history of God’s kingdom started right from there. Jesus and his cross…do you believe that our life and ministry hinge on this core, this essence? Jesus and his cross, nothing else can be the essence of our faith, our life, our ministry. Do you believe it? As our life gets complicated and messy, let’s take human things away from us and hold on to the core again. As our ministry gets burdensome, let’s take human things away from us and start again from Jesus and his cross. Let’s clear our sight and be very sure about the essence of our life, the essence of who we truly are, the essence of whom we are called to be.
“Take soul away from me / Take love away from me / Take justice away from me / Even so, if I still am alive / Even so, if I still live on as though nothing has happened / Who am I? / Who truly am I?” As soon as I finished reading this poem for the first time, in my mind, I continued writing the next stanza following the poem. “Take Jesus Christ away from me / Take his love and grace away from me / Take his cross away from me / Even so, if I still am alive / Even so, if I still live on as though nothing has happened / Who am I? / Who truly am I?” Sisters and brothers in Christ, as we embark on our new journey of our ministry, I hope and pray that we all can strive to be the true disciples of Jesus Christ. Let us deny ourselves and set our minds on divine things, the essential things for we know that without Jesus, we are nothing, and without his cross, we lose the purpose of our life. And let us take up our own cross and follow Jesus in our daily lives. May our loving Jesus Christ and his wonderful cross be in the midst of our heart and guide our journey of faith always. Amen.
When Roxanne’s son Michael (we call him Mikey) was even younger than now, maybe two years ago, he believed I was like a holy person who is very close to God up high and has come down for him. One day, after a worship service, on his way out, Mikey, pointing his finger at me, asked his father in a small voice, “Pa…can we go home with God?” You know, to a child with a pure heart, I, in a long white robe and a colorful stole, could be seen more than just a human. Then his dad, Garon, replied gently yet definitively, “Mikey, I told you, he is not!” And I supported Garon, “Sorry, Mikey, I am not the one you imagine.”
I still remember this moment not just because it was funny and Mikey was so cute, but because that moment always leads me to think about the true meaning of holiness. “You shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). This is what God tells to the people of God. “If you want to be in a close relationship with me, you shall be holy, for I am holy.” But how can we become holy? In what way? Let’s think about the meaning of holiness today. We feel something or someone is holy when this particular something and someone is set apart for God and dedicated to God. Right? Little Mikey saw me godly because I was wearing this white robe that distinguishes myself from him and other church members. This sanctuary also evokes a sense of holiness because it is consecrated and dedicated to God. So, it is clear: to become holy, we should be set apart for God. But the question here is, what does it really mean to be set apart?
In today’s Gospel story, there come the Pharisees who set themselves apart from others by keeping the law. And you know what? Their name “Pharisee” means “separated one.” Anyway, in the story, they encounter a group of fellow Jews, Jesus and his disciples. And the Pharisees are taken aback by the disciples’ unholy behavior. They were eating food without washing their hands! That’s a violation of the tradition of the elders, which here means the purity law (halakha). For the Pharisees, there were many laws to keep them clean and undefiled. The Gospel tells, they even had the laws for “washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:4). But why did they follow all these rules? For hygienic purposes? Not really. They basically followed the purity law because they believed that it’s the way to set themselves apart from others, and so, to keep them holy. That’s how they maintained their exclusive relationship with God.
Here, we see that there is nothing wrong with the origin and purpose of the purity law. And if we take a close look, what Jesus thinks is the problem is not the spirit of the law but the attitude of the Pharisees toward the law. Jesus calls them hypocrites, because they keep the law to be externally distinguished as holy people, rather than to be truly holy in their hearts. To Jesus, being physically set apart is not a serious concern. What’s essential is to set one’s heart apart for God and keep it holy. Even though the Pharisees keep every law and every tradition of the elders, if their hearts are filled with judgment, they are much more defiled than the disciples who break the purity law. So Jesus admonishes the Pharisees, saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). To Jesus, the heart of the matter is our heart on our journey to be holy, our heart in close communion with God’s holiness. Yes, setting our hearts apart for God is the way to be truly holy.
Now we understand that to be holy, we should set our hearts apart for God. Still a question remains, “How can we set our hearts apart for God? In what way?” In today’s Gospel story, Jesus doesn’t miss this point. He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23). In short, to be truly holy, we should set our hearts apart from what? From those evil intentions! Jesus is asking us to check our hearts whether there are any evil intentions or not. And he is asking us to do it frequently and every day like we wash our hands, like we brush our teeth, like we take shower to keep us clean, like we check our appearance and outfit for our daily life and for Sunday worship service.
How to live a holy life in communion with our holy God? Jesus teaches: we can set our hearts apart for God by keeping them from evil intentions.It is such a simple and yet onerous way to follow, isn’t it? But for the people of God who are called by Jesus Christ to experience his grace and love in the power of the Holy Spirit, this is the true way of life. Our Methodist church originated from a small group of students who gathered with John Wesley at Oxford University over 200 years ago. Their gathering was called “Holy Club,” and people around them mockingly said, “they are Methodists,” because they keep a method to live a holy life.
Their method was simple. They met every week and checked their hearts and their intentions. They confessed their sins—as we do every Sunday following the tradition—and they encouraged one another to be everyday disciples, to redirect their lives to the path to holiness. Here are some of “22 Questions” they asked to themselves every day and shared in their meetings. Why don’t we read them together?
If we are called Methodists still today and if we call ourselves Methodists, there is a good reason for us to keep this proud faith tradition. Sisters and brothers in the Lord of holiness, on our way to holiness, let us focus on the matter of our hearts than on anything else. “In the Bible the heart is not simply the organ that pumps blood through the body; it’s a metaphor for a person’s innermost core or spiritual center. ‘Heart’ is shorthand for ‘the total person,’ for ‘one’s whole being or self.’” Let us dedicate our hearts totally and unreservedly to God and to be holy in heart, for our God is holy and God sees, tests and searches for hidden intentions of a human heart. Let us make our church be the place where our hearts matter more than our rules, where our hearts beat for the good news, for the love of Christ, and for the glory of God’s kingdom. Amen.
Heidi Husted, “Matters of the Heart (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23)” inThe Christian Century, August 16-23, 2000 p. 828
Let me begin my sermon with a question: what’s your favorite comfort food? I googled it, and if you let me list some of the most voted American comforts foods, there were chicken noodle soup, baked ziti, mac and cheese, lasagna, tacos, chicken pot pie, jambalaya, different kind of casseroles, stews, chilies, and so on. Why are these all comfort food? I think people usually associate the feeling of comfort with a certain food that is related to some memories of a special person who cooked the food, like parents or grandparents. Then how does comfort food actually comfort people? Is it because of its taste? Or its generous portion or unchecked calories and carbs? I don’t think they’re not the main reason. We feel comfort from food because we can feel the love and care that we once felt when we ate the food before. With the ingredient of personal sentiments, comfort food becomes more than just a food. It is a channel of consolation and support.
Thinking about my comfort food, I figured that I always miss my grandmother’s tofu. I think I already told you about her tofu once before. Anyway, as you already know, tofu is the simple curd made of mashed soybeans. It’s nothing special, and just an everyday food for many Asians. And you can purchase it at any grocery market. But I can proudly say that my grandmother’s homemade tofu was such a special comfort food for me, and it was the best tofu in the world, at least, to me. I remember that she soaked soybeans in water overnight and woke up very early to grind those soybeans in a millstone. My grandparents’ house was in a deep, deep rural area back then, so that they didn’t have any electronic grinder or a gas stove. So it took a while for my grandmother to grind all the soybeans a little amount at a time, made a fire in the old wood stove to boil and churn the soymilk, and finally strained it with a cloth to make tofu. Through this long and painstaking process, she could make only four or five blocks of tofu. But they were more than enough to fully fill and warm up the hungry stomachs of my family in a cold winter morning. The tofu was so fresh that I could even see the steam rise from it. And it was delicious, just by itself. And now I know that I cannot taste that kind of tofu anywhere else. What’s so special about my grandmother’s tofu? Her traditional process of cooking? The soybeans she grew? Were they organic and non-GMO? No…her tofu was special because of her love, the love for her family, the love for her grandson. That love was what comforted me. Nobody can cook better than our grandmothers, because nobody can love us more than them. Food becomes a vessel of love in their hands, at their homes. The taste of my grandmother’s homemade tofu was, indeed, the taste of love.
For the past four weeks we saw how God expresses God’s love through food. God sent quail and manna to the Israelites in the wilderness so that they could sustain their life through the journey to Canaan. When Elijah was hiding himself in a creek, God sent ravens to deliver some food to him, and when he was sitting under a solitary broom tree with deep frustration, angels brought him bread to comfort him, make him walk the way to Mount Horeb, and renew his faith. How about Jesus? Jesus fed five thousand disenfranchised people living around the Sea of Galilee with five barley loaves and two fish. The Gospels tell us that it was greatly important for Jesus to serve food so his disciples could feel his love deeply. Before Jesus was crucified, he had the last supper with his disciples and shared his body and blood with them. And after his resurrection, Jesus went to the Sea of Galilee to find the disciples who went back to their ordinary life as fishermen after his death on the cross. What did Jesus do there? Jesus prepared a meal. The Gospel of John says, “When [the disciples] had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread” (John 21:9). Then, Jesus calls them, “Come and have breakfast” (John 21:12). The simple meal of fish and bread speaks volumes. It was more than just food. The disciples must have realized the unchangeable love of Jesus and felt profound comfort.
However, delivering love through comfort food wouldn’t be enough for Jesus. In Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, Jesus says several times he is now the food itself for us. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love in the world, and Jesus offer himself to us as the bread of life. This bread is made in heaven, our true home. So I think we can call it true homemade bread. By grace through faith, this homemade bread of life gives us not just comfort, but invites us to embody Jesus’ love, share that love with others, and enjoy our true life in communion with God. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus summarizes his point for the last time, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:56-58).
Why are we gathering here today in the church? Isn’t it because we all have once had the unforgettable taste of love of Jesus Christ, the bread of life? And isn’t it because we all want to have that heavenly comfort food more and always in our lives? Isn’t it because we are grateful for the love of Jesus Christ that led him to offer one’s body and blood for our salvation and new life?
Sisters and brothers of Christ, the bread of life… nobody can serve this bread other than Jesus, because nobody can love us more than him. Nobody can share this bread other than Jesus, because nobody can completely give up one’s whole body and blood for us. We know that the love embodied in this bread of life has comforted us and it has power to comfort others also. So now is the time for us to share this bread with others. Let us love one another and forgive one another as Jesus did, so that people around us may taste the heavenly flavor of Jesus’ love and become willing to nourish themselves with the bread of life. Let us make our community of faith be fed with self-denying humility, so that everyone we meet can enjoy the delightful foretaste of God’s kingdom. And above all, let us give thanks to our God who is the baker of our true homemade bread of life and let us be ever grateful for Jesus’ love that comforts all of us always. Amen.
A spiritual master has lost his key to his house. So he goes outside to the grass to look for it. He gets down on his hands and knees and starts running his fingers through every blade of grass. There come eight or ten of his disciples. They ask, “Master, what’s wrong?” He says, “I’ve lost the key to my house.” They say, “Can we help you find it?” He says, “That would be great.” So they all get down on their hands and knees and search for the lost key. As the sun grows hotter, a smart disciple asks, “Master, do you have any idea where you might have lost the key?” The Master replies, “Of course. I lost it in the house.” To which they all exclaimed, “Then why are we looking for it out here in the grass?” The master says with a smile, “Isn’t it obvious? Here is more light.”
What a strange story…isn’t it? I felt the same when I first read it. But I’m telling you, this story has something to think about. It’s because the story tells us some truth about our human condition. Look at the way that the story describes us, humans: we have all lost the key to our house. Here, the house may represent the place we can live with God—the true source of our full and eternal life. The Bible teaches us that our life can be whole and abundant when we abide in God, when we experience God’s presence every day. The house is where we can be at home with God. But we’ve lost the key to this house; we don’t stay there anymore. Because of our sin, we are separated from the house and alienated from God’s indwelling. This is one human condition: we live without the source of full and eternal life.
But even worse, we not only have lost the key to the house but also are searching for it in a wrong place. We are looking for the key outside the house like the master and the disciples. And we say like the master, “Isn’t it obvious to find the key outside? Look, out there in the world, there’s more light, more things that fill us, more pleasure, more wealth, more fun, and more recognition. Isn’t it obvious?” But the truth to be told, the key is not there. It was not lost outside of ourselves; it was lost inside of ourselves. And that’s where we need to look for it. Because of our sin, our eyes are blind, and we are seeking the key to be whole in a wrong place. This is another human condition: everybody is looking for the key to the fullness of life but nobody knows where to find it.
Then, how can we get the key again? How can we find our way back into the house? The key’s inside and we are outside the house. In this situation, we can get in the house only when somebody comes and unlocks the door for us. We can joyfully dwell with God again only when somebody opens up the door of our hearts. Who is this special person? All of us know this person…who sacrificed himself on the cross to remove the latch of sin and death from the door that separates us from God. This person, Jesus Christ our Savior, is the only one who can open the door of the house and give us the key.
Today’s Gospel reading delivers the same message in a different story. In this story, Jesus calls himself “the bread of life,” and tells us that this bread is the key to fulfill our lives. Jesus also points out our human condition that we live without the true source of full and eternal life. In this world, we don’t have the life-giving bread that nourishes us unto genuine life in God. And we cannot make such bread by ourselves. So, everybody is looking for the ways to the fullness of life by feeding them different kind of mundane bread, such as power, fame, and money. But nobody knows where to find the ultimate nourishment for their souls and for their life. Here, Jesus says to all of us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:35; 51). The bread of life is the true key to full and eternal life. Only with this bread, we will never go hungry and thirsty again and will reside in God’s house again.
This is the work of God’s grace that we know who Jesus is for us. Yes, Jesus comes and opens the door for us, so that we can enter the house where we can be at home with God always. Jesus also comes as the bread of life for us, so that we can feed upon him, receive his Spirit in our lives, ingest his love into ourselves, and let him nourish us unto life. Jesus truly is the way, the truth, and the life. Thorough our faith in Jesus, we don’t have to stay outside keeping on our meaningless search for the key in a wrong place. And we don’t have to feed ourselves the food that perishes.
Having faith may sound easy, but it’s not always simple. Why? It’s because we still want to stay outside. Our eyes are still looking for something outside. To our eyes, the house of God seems shabby and the bread of life seems tasteless. The abundant life in the presence of God looks unattractive in this world full of other attractions, other stuff to fill in our lives. Some people find it tedious to go to church on a Sunday morning. Some people find it boring and like a waste of time to volunteer for the missions of the church. Out there in the world, it seems like there’s more light, more tasty food. And especially for you, students, when you go to college, I do know, there will be more glittering things than going to church or keeping your faith in Jesus. Yes, even we, Christians, sometimes hesitate to get in the house and nourish us with the bread of life. Standing on the doorstep of the house, our eyes are still looking outside.
In that moment of temptation, I hope we all may remember Jesus one more time, who is the way, the truth, and the life. And we may also remember the simple truth we have from today’s opening story and the Gospel story. “The key to the fullness of life is inside—not out there.” And “the bread of life is the only true bread for our hunger for genuine life in God—not any other bread in the world.” What we do as a church may seem like nothing dramatic or spectacular. Every time we gather, we do the same—read the scriptures, praying of prayers, sing hymns—sometimes quite old—listen to the sermon. But I firmly believe that all these simple acts of worship, all other ministries, and just small things we do in the name of Jesus our Lord, bring us back into the house, into the presence of our God, and let us live our life fully in God’s grace. So sisters and brothers in Christ, let us keep the faith. Let us entrust our lives to our Lord Jesus Christ. May our faith in Jesus always lead our ways to the ultimate source of full and eternal life. And may our faith in Jesus always open our eyes to get the key to the intimacy with God and to nourish us with the bread of life. Amen.
Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation(Wit Lectures-Harvard Divinity School, Kindle Edition), 44-48.
Let me begin my sermon with a part of an old Korean Cinderella story. Once upon a time, there lived an evil step mother who bullied her step daughter, who was so kind and loving. One day, the step mother made an order that she fill water into a jar with a crack on the bottom. The daughter knew it was impossible. But she had no choice; she had to do something not to be punished. Feeling helpless, she burst into tears. Then suddenly, a big toad came out of nowhere and put himself to the bottom of the jar to close the broken part.
Thanks to the toad, she could fill the jar with water.
“Pouring water into a bottomless jar.” From the story, this idiom originated. Like the English phrase, “pouring something, like money, into a bottomless pit,” this idiom is commonly used to describe a hopeless situation that will never get any better. Think about it. How frustrating is it to pour water into a bottomless jar? I know no one would do such a thing, and it is quite ridiculous to even think of doing it. But let me ask this question. “What would be the best way to fill water in a bottomless jar?”
I understand this question sounds silly, but let’s give it a thought. Obviously, you can fix the jar before pouring water. You may close the broken bottom of the jar with something, like a big toad in the story or like what the famous Flex Tape guy does in the TV commercial. Now, is there any other way than this? It seems like there’s no other way. But believe it or not, there’s one more. Let’s approach a bit differently. How about filling a bottomless jar by immersing it into water? It sounds like nonsense, but just imagine…we bring a jar, a broken, cracked, and bottomless jar, to a stream and dip it in the water. What might happen then? The water naturally fills the jar. This way, we don’t have to fix the jar, and we don’t have to pour water in it. In fact, this is the best and permanent way. When it’s in the water, the bottomless jar can be always full of water.
I thought we humans are like the bottomless jar. A broken, cracked, and bottomless jar…that’s who we are. We have a natural drive for happiness. And we feel happy when our needs are satisfied, like when a jar is filled with water. But the problem is that our needs will never be permanently satisfied because we are the bottomless jar. It’s like hunger. After we eat food, we feel good for a while, but soon we feel hungry again. From our birth, we live our lives to meet our built-in needs to be happy. Needs for security, affection, belonging, esteem, and power…if we meet these basic needs, we can be happy for some moments. But when the needs are repressed, they may trigger psychological issues: low self-esteem, addiction, aggression, depression, feelings of insecurity, and so on. We continue to pour the water of happiness into us, the bottomless jar, but the jar doesn’t stay filled. No matter how much water we fill, we become empty again. Then, can we fix ourselves? Not really. We are naturally born in this way. Then what’s the permanent way to fill the bottomless jar?
From last week, we are following the lectionary readings that lead us to meditate upon the Gospel of John Chapter six for five weeks. Last week’s Gospel reading was about Jesus’famous miracle of feeding five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. In that story, Jesus satisfies people’s needs. And the crowd think that Jesus can fill not only their hunger for food but also their hunger for power. This miracle worker has a power to feed five thousand! So they try to make Jesus their king by force (John 6:15), but Jesus escapes from them and takes a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
But in today’s Gospel story, we see the crowd still follow Jesus even to the other side of the Sea. Who are these people? Most of them were in need. In the days of Jesus, the towns along the Sea of Galilee were inhabited by the marginalized and the rebellious. Their lives were far from being stable. So they were eagerly looking for something from Jesus. That something would be a powerful leadership, a life-changing teaching, a dream for a better world… and most essentially, what they were looking for was the way to satisfaction. The crowd… they too were bottomless jars. They wanted Jesus to pour the water of happiness into their empty jar again and again with his power and miracles. So when they finally find him, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26).
But Jesus doesn’t reject them but leads them to the way to true happiness. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27). Then, Jesus reveals that this special food is Jesus himself. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). By craving for satisfaction, by seeking “the food that perishes,” we cannot be truly happy. It’s like pouring water into a bottomless jar. But only by believing in Jesus, only by eating the bread of life, we shall never be hungry. Through our faith in Jesus, we can abide in the presence of God; we can immerse our broken selves in the ever flowing stream of grace. Then, we shall never go empty again.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, how can we stay in the ever flowing stream of grace? How can we keep true happiness of new life inside our hearts? We all know that true happiness comes not from the short-term satisfaction of our needs, but from the God who is the source of our true joy. So what we should do is to be connected to the source as much as we can, in other words, to stay in the presence of the Lord as much as we can in our daily lives. This requires a spiritual discipline. Our Methodist tradition has great practice for this. We call it the “Means of grace.” This means of grace includes two groups of practices: “the works of piety” and “the works of mercy.” Let us read them together.
Works of Piety
1. Individual Practices: reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting,
regularly attending worship, healthy living, and sharing our faith with others
2. Communal Practices: regularly share in Holy Communion, Christian conferencing (accountability to one another), and Bible study
Works of Mercy
1. Individual Practices: doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison,
feeding the hungry, and giving generously to the needs of others
2. Communal Practices: seeking justice, ending oppression and discrimination
(John Wesley challenged Methodists to end slavery), and addressing the needs of the poor
Through these means of grace, I hope you can abide in the loving presence of God. Be always aware of God’s presence in your lives. God is closer to you than you are to yourself. Be mindful of the guidance of the Holy Spirit at each step you take. And go deeper into the ever flowing stream of grace and immerge yourself in that living water. May God’s abundant flow of love fill you with heavenly joy and happiness always. Amen.
Since the second Sunday of June, we have explored the stories and theological meanings of our favorite hymns and sung them together as closing each worship service. And today, we are already looking into our last favorite hymn. Beginning with “How Great Thou Art,” we reflected on an African American spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” a contemporary praise, “How Great Is Our God,” and the classics, “Blessed Assurance,” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Are you enjoying this sermon series so far? Through this journey, I hope those hymns may resonate within our own stories of faith and our own melodies of grace as we continue to make our beautiful polyphony of grace here with the guidance of the Holy Spirit…
If there is one word that every little kid loves to use other than “no,” it would be “why.” They throw countless why-questions at their parents and teachers. “Why can’t we get a puppy?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why can’t I have ice cream right now?” The funniest why-question I’ve ever received when I was a Sunday school teacher was, “Why do you have hair coming out of your nose?” Oops! Judy Arnall, a parenting expert says, the “why stage” of development isn’t about misbehaving or annoying parents. It’s what happens when children’s brains exercise their imagination and creative thinking. So the question of “why” actually shows a significant leap in brain development.
But when children advance from the why stage to the next stage of development, do why-questions ever go away? Perhaps, they would ask less questions, because they have certain answers from their experience and learn how to find answers as their intellect grows. But look at us. As grown-ups, can we say that we are now free from asking why? No, we can’t. It looks like we only have different sets of why-questions. And even worse, questions we ask in our adulthood are more complicated and hard to answer, because they are more about our life and existence. Why do I live? Why do I exist? Why is my life such and such? It’s truly difficult to answer these why-questions especially about the reason for life.
Then, when we have those in-depth why-questions about our life, how do we find answers? In what way? We might get some help from great achievements of human mind like philosophy and science. And we might get some wisdom from our friends and someone we respect and trust. Yes, they may provide us with quite good rationales of life. But even though those rationales are meaningful to us, we know they are not enough to discover life’s purpose behind its reality. Why? It’s simply because we are humans, and the way of human mind has certain limitations. So here, we better come up with a different approach, a different way to find answers. And the other way we have is the way of faith. This way tends to be disregarded and considered archaic in this world of advanced science and technology. However, as a Christian, I am confident that this is the way. This is the only way that assures us of the ultimate reason for life.
Our Christian faith simply affirms that God’s everlasting love for us is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And he is the answer to the why-questions about our life. Through our faith in Jesus, we get to know the truth that we are beloved children of God. With love, God created us in God’s image. And by grace, God saved us even when we were yet sinners. So why do we live? It’s because we are called to live our life in God’s love and abundant blessing. We cannot even measure how much we are loved and how priceless our lives are. Please remember, Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave just for our lives, for our new lives. The first verse of the hymn “Because He Lives” tells us exactly about this reason for life. “God sent his son, They called him Jesus, He came to love, Heal and forgive, He lived and died, To buy my pardon, An empty grave, Is there to prove, My Savior lives.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we are called to God’s love. Each one of us is personally called to the love that gives us new life, new hope, and new purpose and meaning of life.
The authors of the hymn are the two of the longest-lasting performing couples of Christian contemporary music, Gloria and William J. Gaither.
It is said they wrote the hymn based on the answer to their own why-questions of life. It was when they were expecting their third child, they saw many social upheavals in the sixties. Drug traffic, assassinations, racial tensions, and threats of war monopolized the headline news. And Mr. Gaither was very ill and the couple went through a very hard time. Ms. Gaither recalls the time when they asked to themselves, “Why do we give birth to a child into such a world like this?” “Why should we let our child face the uncertain future?” But facing these why-questions, the Gaithers experienced a mysterious moment of divine assurance. Ms. Gaither says, “At a moment, suddenly I felt released from it all… the assurance of the risen Christ blew across our troubled minds like a cooling breeze in the parched desert… Gradually, the fear left and the joy began to return. I knew I could have that baby and face the future with optimism and trust. It was the resurrection affirming itself in our lives once again. It was life conquering death in the regularity of my day.” With this answer, they wrote, “How sweet to hold, A newborn baby, And feel the pride, And joy he gives, But greater still, The calm assurance, This child can face, Uncertain days, Just Because he lives.”
Because he lives, not only because he died on the cross for us, but because he lives for us, we know we can live our new life in Christ, the life that is everlasting. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus assures his disciples, “Because I live, you also will live.” The chorus of the hymn gloriously sings, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, Because he lives, All fear is gone, Because I know, He holds the future, And life is worth the living, Just because he lives.” Yes, because he lives, we know that we will also live. Because he lives, we know that our faith in God will never go in vain. Because he lives, we know that the true love can overcome any suffering and death in this world. Because he lives, we know that God loves us and calls us to love God and love one another. Because he lives, we have unending hope for the future.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus has risen and freed us from our sins and liberate us even from the power of death. He has risen and assured us of the worthiness of our life. So let us never cease praising him who gives us the ultimate reason for life. And let us live our life in all confidence of God’s everlasting love for us. Why? Because he lives, just because he lives. Amen.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The survey of our favorite hymns showed me that this hymn was picked more than others, and I think it is not a surprise at all. No doubt, it’s a great hymn with beautiful praises for God’s steadfast love, care, and guidance in our lives. Hear the heartfelt chorus of the hymn, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!” Singing this hymn, have you ever got curious about the author of this hymn? From the beautiful lyrics we may guess that the author probably had many reasons to be grateful to God. And it seems likely that the author lived a wonderful life, because such praise can’t just come out of someone who didn’t experience God’s abundant blessings. Sure enough.
But against our expectation, this hymn’s author, Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960) lived a rather underprivileged and challenging life.
Born in a log cabin in a small Kentucky town of Franklin, Chisholm was a farm boy who grew up without any formal education. Nevertheless, he tried hard and became a teacher at age sixteen, and the associate editor of his hometown newspaper, the Franklin Advocate, at age twenty-one. After he converted into Christianity, he pursued to be a pastor and finally got ordained as a Methodist minister ten years later. He started his ordained ministry at a church in Kentucky, but very unfortunately, he had to resign after just one year because of his poor health condition. He struggled with his health issue for many years. Later, he moved to New Jersey but couldn’t go back to ministry. So, for the rest of his life, he worked as a life insurance salesperson.
Even though his life didn’t start in a favorable circumstance, even though his life didn’t unfold as the way he wanted, Chisholm never ceased praising God through his poems. And by the time of his retirement, he already had more than 1,200 poems. 800 of them were published including the most famous, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Toward the end of his life, Chisholm testified, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years, which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
What a testimony! This powerful testimony of faith resonates right within the first verse of the hymn. “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father; There is no shadow of turning with Thee, Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.” How could Chisholm keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in his life? How could he keep trusting God no matter what?
The questions run even more deeply as we meditate on the Bible passage that directly inspired Chisholm to write the hymn. That is a passage from the Book of Lamentations. As the title says, the Book of Lamentations is a collection of poetic laments. This book can hardly ever be a favorite reference of hymn writers or pastors, because it is mostly packed with vehement expressions of gut-wrenching grief. In the book, the poets of lamentations cry out for God as they witness the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem (586 BCE), and they hold God accountable for the miseries they are facing as captives. But it is just incredible that even in their deepest desperation, they don’t lose their faith in God. Rather, they reaffirm their faith and even praise God, because they believe that their hope is still in God, and in God only. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). “Great is your faithfulness! Even we are in the middle of unending ordeal and anguish, we believe, great still is your faithfulness.” Yes, they sing! And this authentic praise out of the turbulent depth inspired Chisholm to join their singing.
How could Chisholm and the people of God keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in their lives? How could they keep trusting God no matter what? The rest of the hymn gives us the answers to the questions. It first tells us that when we simply observe the course of nature, we can find God’s care for all creation and believe God’s unchanging faithfulness. Verse 2 goes, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above; Join with all nature in manifold witness, To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” Here the hymn praises our God the Creator who gives us the confidence in God’s faithful care. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus also asks us to see God’s steadfast love, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).
Now the hymn gives us another answer that when we remember what God has done for our new life, we will never lose our faith in God’s faithfulness. Verse 3 goes, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow. Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.” Here the hymn praises our God the Redeemer who liberates us from the chain to sin and death, and it also praises our God the Sustainer who is ever present among us and closely guides our journey of faith.
Because of the one who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, because of the faithful work of our triune God among us, because of God’s lifegiving love, saving grace, and everlasting peace for us, we can keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all the challenges in our lives; we can keep trusting God no matter what; and we can sing, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
Sometimes, we face moments of grief and suffering. And sometimes, our reality is too hard to bear. It is never easy to remain faithful when our lives don’t get any better or when we struggle with our own situations. It is never easy to keep our faith when our light of hope flickers in our hearts, yet the winds of despair gust through our lives. In times like these, what shall we do to keep our faith? From the hymn of Thomas Chisholm and the lamentation of the Israelites in exile, we should learn one thing for sure today. In such times like those, we praise God. We praise God witnessing God’s faithful care for all God’s creation. We praise God trusting in God’s faithful work as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And we praise God’s faithfulness no matter what. Then, I believe, God will surely fill our hearts with heavenly joy and confidence. So let us praise God once more and every time, “Great is Thy faithfulness!” Amen.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-great-is-thy-faithfulness); (http://gaither.com/news/“great-thy-faithfulness”-story-behind-hymn)
Do you remember what happened in this sanctuary exactly on this day six years ago, July 1st, 2012? Can anybody guess? That day was also Sunday… Yes, it was the very first Sunday that I had the worship service and delivered my sermon as a pastor right in this pulpit. That was six years ago already. And it means that today, another year of my ministry has started. How do I feel? I am truly grateful that I can have this worship service with you today and still belong to my loving church family from both congregations. In a way, I feel like I have been through a tough journey with you, a journey with many roadblocks, with many ups and downs. But above all, I am truly grateful that through the journey, I have witnessed how God is working among us to grow and enlarge our circle of blessing.
Looking back on those years, personally, I have many testimonies. But beyond everything else, what I can testify in all confidence is just one simple assurance engraved in my heart. That is, “God never gives up.” God never gives up on us because we are the children of God. And God never gives up on us until God’s will be done in our lives. God never gives up. This is the assurance I have come to hold through my short and humble journey in ministry.
Last week as I was reflecting on the assurance and preparing another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace,” I felt like God reassuring my faith by the beautiful message of the hymn that we are looking into today. This favorite hymn of our choice is “Blessed Assurance.” Yes, what else would it be?
This hymn was written by one of the most famous hymn writers of all time, Fanny Crosby. She became blind at the age of six weeks,but with her extraordinary talent, She began composing hymns at age six and eventually became an author of more than 8,000 gospel hymn texts. And more importantly to us… she was a lifelong Methodist. History tells us about the day in 1873 when Crosby wrote “Blessed Assurance.” On that day, her friend, Phoebe Palmer Knapp, visited her and played a melody to Fanny Crosby and asked, “What does the melody say to you?” Crosby replied that the tune suggested the words, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” And she immediately proceeded to recite the entire first verse of the hymn.
From the story, we can imagine, Crosby must have kept her assurance so faithfully in her heart that it could be immediately crystalized into words as soon as the melody inspired her soul. Then, how does her vivid assurance come to be expressed in a form of hymn? The hymn begins by describing the foundation of Christian assurance, the ground on which we can keep our faith in God. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of his spirit, washed in his blood.” The first verse of the hymn tells us, the foundation of our blessed assurance is Jesus who comes to us and reveals God’s steadfast love for us. True, through Jesus, we are assured that we can experience the “foretaste of glory divine” in our lives. Through Jesus, we are assured that his sacrifice on the cross makes us the “heirs of salvation” “born of His Spirit.” And through Jesus, we are assured that God loves us always and therefore, God never gives up on us. In today’s Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul proclaims that nothing can change God’s love for us, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Romans 8:38-39). Indeed, upon Jesus Christ, who is the firm foundation of our faith, the rock of our salvation, the cornerstone of our church, we can stand assured of God’s everlasting love for us.
Following the foundation of our blessed assurance, the hymn moves on to teach us the way of Christian assurance, the way we can remain assured of God’s loving presence. How can we always feel blessed, beloved, joyful, redeemed, and esteemed on the ground of our faith? One thing for sure is that we cannot stay assured by our own will, by our own power and effort. Even though we have the assurance of God’s love, we are still humans whose faith easily gets weakened by our fears, doubts, and despairs. And we are still humans who seek other grounds of assurance than Jesus Christ because we crave some short-term guarantees of evanescent happiness, and we strive to fulfill instinctive human needs of security, power, and affection.
Then, what is the way we can permanently live on the ground of our true assurance? The hymn tells us the way in two words, “Perfect submission.” “Perfect submission, perfect delight! Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; Angels descending bring from above, Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Yes, the way that we can be always assured of God’s love and joyfully abide in that love is perfect submission of our will. When we surrender our stubborn will and let God take the steering wheel, we will be able to find the glimpse of “perfect delight.” When we deny our strong ego that blinds our eyes and deafens our ears, we will be able to see the “visions of [joy]… burst on [our] sight,” and hear the “echoes of mercy” and “whispers of love.” So let us surrender our will and let God’s will be done through us. Let us submit our ego and let only Christ live in us, let our Good Shepherd find us the way to green pastures. This is the way, the only way, we can always have the “foretaste of glory divine” and live in the assurance of new life, of new hope, of the new heaven and the new earth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, today we are standing on the foundation of our assurance, that is, God’s steadfast love for us in Jesus Christ. With this divine love, we surely become confident that God never gives up on us, the beloved children of God. Delivering this sermon on the day that marks a new start of ministry here, I can certainly say to you that this is my story and this is my song. God has never given up on us, and I know, God never will. So I praise my savior, all the day long. On our way of assurance, let us remain assured in Christ; let us surrender our will and let God’s will be done in our lives. Through the blessed assurance and the perfect submission, I hope and pray that we can find a true joy of salvation and a true hope for the kingdom to come always. Amen.
Today I’m delivering another sermon in the sermon series, “Polyphony of Grace.” When designing this sermon series and doing a survey of our favorite hymns, I really hoped to have at least one African-American spiritual and one contemporary Christian music among the favorites. And guess what, thankfully enough, it worked out as I wanted! So last Sunday, with our gospel choir, Voices of Praise, we could sing one touching spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” and praise our God of freedom. And today, with our contemporary band, LIFT, we’re going to sing “How Great Is Our God” as our closing song.
I believe it’s truly a great blessing that we can enjoy different kinds of music in our worship services and make the true polyphony of grace in our midst. As you already know, in our church, we worship with various music styles—traditional hymns, classical music, Taizé songs, gospels, African-American spirituals, and contemporary praise songs and so on. Even though each of us has a personal preference when it comes to worship music, we still fully try and accept other forms of praise in our worship services with our open hearts and open ears. And this is a wonderful thing.
You’d hear quite frequently about conflicts regarding music in some churches. There have been tensions and disputes between the people who prefer traditional music and the people who prefer contemporary music. But this conflict is nothing new; it’s actually a centuries-old conflict that, I think, will last as long as the church exists. You’ll find this interesting: there was a time when one of the most traditional hymns to us, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written by Martin Luther, was regarded unholy because he used a folk tune of his days. Also, there was a time when the beautiful hymn of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” was treated as ungodly and even banned from some churches because of its cheerful mood. And not too long ago, I myself remember the days when people debated on whether to include guitars and drums in worship services.
Yes, because we are humans, we may prefer certain kinds of music over others and feel uncomfortable with particular rhythms, tunes, and instruments. And we can’t change the way we are as individuals. But I believe, as a church, as the people who are called and saved by God’s grace, if we put first the reason that we praise and worship God before anything else, the controversies on styles of music would mean nothing. I believe, it is much more important for all of us to be clear on “why” we should praise God before “how” we should praise God.
So why should we praise God? We praise God because God’s grace for us is ever admirable and praiseworthy. We praise God because God has done the great work of salvation among us as the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. This work of grace is so unfathomable that no single way of praise can fully describe it. It cannot be glorified fully even with a thousand tongues to sing and even with a thousand music to play. The greatness of God shall be acclaimed in many different forms of music and many different tunes from generation to generation. And before this absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise can become relative and secondary.
“How Great Is Our God,” which is picked as our favorite contemporary song, bountifully reveals our reasons for praise. Inspired by the words of the Psalms (96;104), the first verse sings the greatness of God the Creator, the one who is transcendent and has the power and dominion over all creations: “The splendor of a King, clothed in majesty, let all the earth rejoice…He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide and trembles at His voice…How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.” The song goes on to touch upon other reasons for praise like the work of God in the Trinity, especially God’s immanent presence in the person of Jesus Christ. “Age to age He stands and time is in His hands. Beginning and the end. The Godhead Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son. The Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb. How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.”
Why should we praise God? The song gives us clear answers. We praise God for God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness, but even more we praise God because God is immanent and present among us walking closely with us. We praise God for God’s splendor and majesty, but even more we praise God because God’s splendor and majesty are clothed with humility and meekness in Jesus Christ. We praise God for God’s dominion over the creation, but even more we praise God because in Jesus Christ, we see how God’s power was humbled and emptied for the sake of our reconciliation with God. We praise God for God’s Son who came to the world as the lion, as the mighty king who builds the kingdom of God on earth, but even more we praise God because this lion became the lamb of salvation obediently sacrificed on the cross to declare God’s everlasting love for us (John 1:29-34). We praise God for these amazing reasons.
So now, how should we praise God? Do we have to choose one type of music over others to express our faith in God? Do we have to argue about a better way to express our heart full of wonder, gratitude, and joy? Again, before the absolute and primary reason for our praise, the way of our praise becomes relative and secondary. And it is rather unnecessary to decide legitimate forms of music as far as a music reveals the unchanging reasons that we praise God and inspires us to keep our faith in God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, no matter how we praise our God, let us remember that our God, who has the name above all names, is always worthy of our praise. So let us sing and praise the greatness of our God in every way that we can take and continue to make the beautiful polyphony of grace in our gathering. Amen.
“Let freedom ring!” At the end of his historic speech, “I Have a Dream,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shouted. “Let freedom ring!” The speech sparked a light of justice in numerous people’s hearts and led them to a fight for freedom from long-standing segregation and discrimination. From that day, our society has walked a long way to keep everyone’s unalienable right of freedom. But today, in this so-called land of liberty, are we actually free? Are we truly free?
We are not free from the powers of the world that delimit our freedom. We are not free from the powers that aggravate discrimination and bigotry in our society. We are not free from the powers that tear immigrant families apart by federal raids, indefinite detentions, and deportations. We are not free from the powers of biased media that control our perspectives. We are not free from the powers that retain basic necessaries of human life like food, medical service, and education, from being more accessible and affordable. We are not free from the irresponsible powers that don’t care about lurking danger of gun violence and environmental crisis. We are not free from the powers that gain benefits from putting crushing weight of financial burdens on people’s back. How are we actually free from this inescapable web of the worldly powers? I don’t think we are free enough to live the way God created us to be. And it looks like we still need to walk another long way to seek true freedom as it is endowed by God.
But to us, although we are bound up in the web, here comes the good news of God. The Bible clearly testifies that God is the giver of freedom. Indeed, the work of God’s grace, at its core, is to set God’s people free from all the powers of the world. God is the God of Exoduswho raised Moses and led God’s people out of the slavery in Egypt. The Song of Moses in the book of Exodus praises the God who saved God’s people by leading them through the Red Sea, and defeated the Pharaoh’s chariots and army by exercising a great miracle. Moses sings, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:1-2).
The psalmist acclaims God as the God of liberationwho delivered the captives from the oppressive rules of the Empire. The psalmist praises God on the historic day when the Israelites finally returned to their homeland from the long exile: (3) “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalm 126:1-2).
Jesus also reveals that God is the God of deliverancewho breaks the bondages to evil powers, the powers of sin and death. Jesus, at the very beginning of his mission in this world, proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The God of Exodus, the God of liberation, and the God of deliverance… the Bible affirms that our God is the Chain Breaker who gives us freedom, the freedom from all worldly powers that try to bind us. Do you believe this?
Through history, Christians firmly upheld this truth and courageously strived for their freedom with their faith. And the stories of freedom in the Bible became their own testimonies in their lived experiences. Today, we want to remember especially those who fought for freedom on this American soil even before the days of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They are African-American slaves. Their songs, which we call spirituals, are the direct testimonies to their strong faith in God, the God who is the giver of freedom.
Our Voices of Praise choir beautifully sang two spirituals already, “Go Down Moses” and “Wade in the Water.” And as our closing hymn, we’re going to sing “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” one of the songs that enrich our polyphony of grace. Historians find the origin of these three spirituals from the Underground Railroad, which was a network of secret routes and safe houses for runaway African-American slaves. It was established in the early to mid-19th century, and used by fugitive slaves as a way to escape into free states in the North and Canada with the aid of abolitionists.
New Jersey was also an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad and proudly, many Methodist churches served as important stations on the trail.
On this treacherous road to freedom, the slaves faithfully remembered the stories in Exodus, identified their experience with that of the Hebrew slaves, and on this railroad, they sang, “Go Down Moses,” and “Wade in the Water.” It is known that one of the renowned abolitionists, Harriet Tubman, used these songs like some secrete codes. For example, she sang “Wade in the Water” when she needed to notice the escaping slaves to get off the trail and walk into the water to make sure that the dogs of slavecatchers lose their trail. On their perilous pilgrimage to the promised land, they asked Jesus to walk with them. “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” In face of life-threatening moments, they yearned for God’s care and protection from the bottom of their heart. “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; in my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” And in the middle of troubles and gut-wrenching sorrows, in the middle of doubts and fears, the slaves kept moving on and sang, “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.” To freedom, taking one step at a time, they made their honest and faithful plea for deliverance to the God of the Hebrew slaves, to the God of the captives, and to the God of the oppressed.
Today, we are also walking our own ways to freedom. For sure, our path may not be as life-threating or desperate as African-American slaves’ Underground Railroad. But as we sing these spirituals, don’t we feel the melodies and lyrics still touching our souls? Don’t we feel the faith that they expressed still resonating deeply in our hearts? Why? It’s because we are not also free from the worldly powers that always try to seize us. It’s because our battle for freedom still continues in different forms. It’s because we still have different burdens to carry, yokes to bear, and fears to encounter. It’s because our ways can turn into stony trails and rocky railroads at any given moment. Yes, it’s because we are the ones who need to keep the faith in our God of Exodus, our God of liberation, and our God of deliverance all along our pilgrim journeys. Yes, we are the ones who seriously need Jesus to walk with us in our trials and in our troubles.
Who is our God? The Bible testifies clearly that our God is the Chain Breaker. The grace of our God always sets us free from all the bondages to the spiritual forces of wickedness and to the evil powers of this world. Let us accept this gift of freedom through our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for us to be unbound, to walk with us through our homebound journey of faith. So let us walk with Jesus Christ our Savior, putting our whole trust in his grace and carrying one another’s burden as he did on the cross, until we may “join hands and sing in the words of the old African-American spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” Amen.