God is not done!

It was when I was about ten years old that we did not have a TV set at home. In fact, we did not even have electricity in the village where I grew up in Korea. But I remember everyone’s ears pricked up to this radio live report: Neil Armstrong was stepping down on the surface of the moon and we got all excited about this historical event of 1969.

But I hear there are people who believe that the Moon landing was just a Hollywood showcase and that the US Government has been lying to us for 40 years now.

We still deal with the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars after that tragedy are still not finished. But if you go online, there are conspiracy theories arguing that the collapse of the twin towers was an act of controlled demolition orchestrated by government officials of this country. Wow…

Also in Korea, there are some people, especially young ones, who do not believe that there was Korean War at all. Again, wow.

Throughout history, the same thing has been true with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are many people who think the resurrection was fake. Some people have argued that Jesus’ body was stolen by someone. If that was true, how would you explain what happened later on: how did the disappointed disciples after Jesus’ death go back to Jerusalem and later give their lives for the Gospel of the resurrection? Could it just happen? I personally cannot make that connection. What would have been their motivation?

From the very beginning, there have been many folks who did not want to recognize the risen Christ Jesus.

John Lennon of the Beatles once said: “Christianity will go… We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Now, John Lennon has been gone since 1980 but Christianity is still going! And it is going strong in many parts of the world.

Six weeks from today, I will be going to East Africa to do some volunteer teaching for ministers there.

As you can imagine, people’s lives in that part of the world are tough; resources like water and food are so scarce that people are always hungry and thirsty. The living conditions are beyond your imagination.

But one thing I saw last time was this: churches are on fire. People love Jesus. People give their lives to God. People experience the power of the Holy Spirit. People are healed from their illnesses. There are miracles happening in people’s lives.

God is not done with the world. God reveals himself in the works of millions of people who are followers of Jesus Christ in every corner of this planet.

When I was in Uganda six years ago, many pastors had more than one church because churches were growing and there were not enough pastors. The majority of them give their lives with no pay; they want to learn; they have this hunger for education; they have the desire for the Bible and theological education.

By the time I come back from this trip, I know I will be exhausted physically, but I will be much stronger spiritually.

I want to go there not just for the people, but for my own spiritual formation. I want to be challenged; I want to be energized; I want to be empowered by the spirit of God; I want to be refilled by the power of the risen Christ that is among those Christian men and women who, despite all the difficulties they face, never give up their hope and continue to work to spread the Gospel.

I believe they are the true role models of Christian faith in this day and age. How can you give your lives without even getting paid? Do you think it is possible without the conviction of faith? Do you think it is possible without the presence of the risen Christ?

In Luke 24: 13-35, two disciples are on their way home to Emmaus. They were like retreating German soldiers after World War II dragging their feet with their heads down. Even though they had heard from some women about Jesus’ resurrection, they said, “No, it can’t be true.” “No, I don’t believe it.” “Get real; it is done; we are going home.” No hope, no dream; the only thing they had were regrets and disappointments.

But Jesus was not done with them. Jesus was there walking with them even though they did not recognize him. Jesus was reminding them of the biblical promises about himself, the messiah. And it was when they sat down and broke the bread with them that they recognized it was Jesus. Coming right back to Jerusalem, they realized they were not the only ones that Jesus had revealed himself to.

Before, everyone was disappointed; everyone was down; everyone was hurt; everyone was broken; everyone was sad; everyone thought it was all over. Now, after that evening, everyone was joyful; everyone was convinced; everyone was rejuvenated; everyone was hopeful; everyone was ready to do anything even though they would not get paid.

Folks, here is the bottom line: God is not done with us. Our life hangs in the balance of whether we believe in the resurrection or not.

I know American churches are struggling; I know churches here are all dragging their feet just like those disciples who were heading to Emmaus.

But Jesus is here with us; the risen Christ is walking and talking with us in every step of our life.

God is not done with us. Your life and my life can become transformed by the same power of Jesus Christ who transformed the disciples 2000 years ago and many others these days in many parts of the world.

The future of your life and my life, and the future of all the churches can not only become changed but we can also transform this world… Not by our power but by the power of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of all.

God is not done yet. Because of that, God is calling you and me to open our eyes and open our hearts so that we recognize Jesus, the risen Christ, not just with our heads, but in our hearts and minds and in lives and actions.

Every Sunday should be Easter; the joy and excitement of Easter should be our everyday experience. It is what God wants from us; He wants us to recognize His presence no matter where we are.

Church! Before this service, I am sure that some of you came here with doubts and uncertainties about your faith. But now and after this moment, I hope and pray that we have this unwavering faith in the risen Christ so that we not only live a new life in faith but we can also share this good news of Jesus Christ with others in this world.

Christ is not done with us; he is walking with us reminding and empowering us with his presence.

Amen.

The Rare Word

In our life, we are constantly in conversation with something; whether we like it or not, we hear the voices of the world calling to us all the time; we see people talking on the phone while walking on the streets; some people leave their television on even when they take a nap; people watch their phones checking emails and text messages even at work places.

Yes, words are all over. We live in a flood of words.

We are tuned into the world and constantly in conversation with what is going on around us.

1 Samuel 3 describes the dramatic scene of Samuel’s call to ministry and it says that the word was rare and there were not many visions in those days. I am sure that there must have been a flood of words of all sorts in Samuel’s time just like today. But the word was rare; the word that cuts deep into people’s hearts; the word that gave people the ultimate hope.

As we as a nation are celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, I think of him as one of the most important persons who had the word for us; he had the vision for our nation and his vision is still making our eyes open.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

What can be better words than these that really help us to envision a world and work together for the ideals this country stands for?

Dr. King may not have been a genius or a supernatural person. According to his biography, he never experienced a dramatic call to ministry as Samuel did. He said, ‘I’m the son of a preacher . . . my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher, so I didn’t have much choice.’ His call to ministry was rather a gradual one; along the way of his life, he had sensed the inner urge calling him to ministry.

Richard Lischer writes that when he reached 18, his father made an arrangement for his trial sermon in his church. And in the sermon the 18 year old youngster ‘spoke almost nothing of Jesus;’ and ‘the very fancy words’ he spoke that evening were borrowed from Harry Emerson Fosdick. But God gave him this courage to preach the Gospel and passion for justice and he later became one of the best preachers in the world.

What impressed me the most in the movie Selma was this: when Dr. King led the second march two days after the Bloody Sunday, the police and state troopers were on the other side of the Edmund Pette Bridge waiting for them to cross over and the marchers were standing in a distance quietly. In that eerie-felt-moment of standoff, Dr. King came down on his knees on the bridge for a short prayer and he decided to take the marchers back to the church. And one of the reviewers on the movie said online, “The measure of King’s greatness came not when he pushed forward but when he retreated…” And I agree. And later that evening, people got upset and tried to throw a fit at him asking why he did not move forward. And this is what Dr. King said to them, “What I want is people getting to vote, not getting them killed.”

He did not lose his focus even in that difficult moment; and his focus was peace and justice through non-violence. And he continued to call and convince President Johnson to help. Eventually, Johnson decided to allow the peaceful march toward Montgomery and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came along.

God used Dr. King to speak the word and showed the vision in the time when the word was rare and vision was dim. God gave Dr. King the wisdom and leadership skill in that critical moment of our nation’s history that we all need to follow his legacy even today to build a society in which all God’s people can live a life of full capacity. And his word and life legacy still speak loudly in our ears. And now, God calls you and me to listen to his word in our own unique way so that your life and my life can be the continuation of Dr. King’s vision and legacy.

One of The Hardest Jobs

There are lots of hard jobs in the world: things that are tough to do, tasks that require highly skilled trainings.

The first one that comes to my mind is catching crabs near Alaska like we see on television; just imagine those tough guys fighting the wind and high waves on ships. How about being a firefighter? Certainly, it is not easy for many people to go into blazing fire when everyone else is trying to escape it; there are too many risks.

What else? How about mining? You go several hundred feet down the earth and work in the dark? Not for me. How about window cleaning jobs on those skyscraper buildings? It is too scary even to watch them. What else? The fact is, if you ask 10 people what the toughest jobs are, probably, you are going to get 10 different answers.

I want to suggest one more, the one that is, without doubt, the hardest job of all: being a person who accepts others who do not like you.

There are countries that make lots of high tech weapons like missiles and submarines but have a hard time even talking with countries they do not agree with.

Certainly, making friends or bringing reconciliation is the toughest job in the world.

Almost every day we hear stories about violence: from the clashes between the Palestinians and Israeli forces to the killings of ethnic minorities by Islamic Militants in Northern Iraq to the Police brutality toward black men across the United States and to, more recently, Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in Paris. And beneath most of these incidents were racial and religious conflicts and they may be one of the toughest tasks to solve.

Featured Image -- 1081Then, what is it that I as a preacher can do in this frustrating time?

One thing I did was read the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21. In this not-often-read (at least in my church tradition) biblical story, where Hagar and Ishmael are thrown away into the wilderness out of conflicts between Sarah and Hagar, God is saying to Hagar, “Dear, do not be afraid; lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand… I will make a great nation of him.” God gives Hagar a promise that was almost identical to the promise given to Abraham: that He would make her descendants “too numerous to count.”

People think that they can claim God in an exclusive way based on their creeds or ideologies and that exclusivism brings to the world the division of “We and They,” which I think is the cause of all the conflicts we face. But we cannot claim God based on who we think we are; God claims us all regardless of who we are.

The world always leads us to the division of “We and They.” But God wants us to know that God also cares about them as much as God cares about us.

I have this Muslim friend who loves to stop by my church and likes to talk with me. A very genuine person, he has asked me questions like “Sam, This is Ramadan. I am supposed to fast but I am not now. Do you guys also fast in church?” “Do you Christians allow men to have more than one wife?” And one day, he said to me, “Sam, someday, would you like to visit Iran with me?”

That day, on my way home, I thought that I might not be able to visit Iran with him anytime soon, but it was wonderful to have a friendship with him. The more I talked with him, the better I learned about him. Not only that, it helped me rethink of who I am as a Christian. Through the encounter, I realized that he was just a human being just like me who was trying to be faithful to his faith tradition but finding it not easy.

As fallible human beings, we may not be able to solve all those conflicts between religions that we hear about on the news. But at least we can have a genuine friendship and talk with our neighbors of other faith and find where we are through that encounter. I think that is the beginning of peace-making here in our community.

Sam Park, PhD

Associate Professor of Preaching & Director of DMin Program American Baptist Seminary of the West & Graduate Theological Union

 

Reflection on Sankofa Journey

Dr. Sangyil (Sam) Park
Associate Professor of Preaching and Director of DMin Program

As I am writing this article, a fierce debate is occurring among people in Selma, Alabama, and online, over the effort that the City Council of Selma is making to rebuild the monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a noted Confederate general in the American Civil War and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1860s. Advocates are adamant that a new bust of Forrest, their “hero,” be built on city owned land because a former bust had been stolen from the local museum earlier this year. Opponents want the construction stopped, arguing that the city known as the launching ground of the Civil Rights Movement should not dishonor itself by allowing the construction of the monument to the “brutal racist.”

As someone who has just come back from a contemplative trip to the South, I feel like the stories of painful racial segregation and conflicts that I heard throughout the journey are never a thing of the past but the current reality that still divide people in this country. I feel more frustrated than ever by this and wonder what we should do as the church about these ongoing racial and political divisions among us.

In early August, I joined a group of sixteen Christian sojourners, clergy and laity from across the nation, to take a 1700 mile bus trip from Chicago to the southern cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis to experience the civil rights movement that changed the course of our nation’s history. Not to mention my age, but also as an immigrant to whom all the injustices of slavery and racial segregation before my time were never real, I had wanted to learn and feel what history was talking about with my own eyes and heart.

To name a few places we visited: the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four innocent black girls were killed during Sunday School by a bomb planted by a member of local KKK to stop a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham. We visited Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law organization in Montgomery, that provides legal assistance to condemned prisoners, especially juveniles who were sentenced to die in prison for the crimes they committed when they were thirteen or fourteen years of age. They said that in the United States, dozens of thirteen and fourteen year old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults.

We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where thousands marched to Montgomery, including Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. This march eventually led to the approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We visited a house in Jackson, Mississippi, where a local businessman named Jacob Burkle was believed to have used his house as a haven for slaves escaping to freedom on the underground railroad. We also went to Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the National Civil Rights Museum, where Dr. King was assassinated while he was visiting to support the economic equality and social justice for garbage collectors.

I have gone on trips abroad to Europe and the Middle East to trace the footprints of those who have handed down the faith we have. But these three nights and four days in our own backyard, America, were more meaningful to me because everything we experienced and shared with one another was related to our lives and work here and now in our communities. It was a difficult journey not because we had to sleep two out of three nights on the bus while we were moving, but because some of the stories we heard from those places. While moving, we watched related videos, shared our feelings and thoughts, prayed, and laughed together. Being honest and vulnerable was a part of the covenant together. 
 
This trip was called Sankofa Journey and was organized by the Evangelical Covenant Church headquartered in Chicago. “Sankofa” in a West African language means “looking backward to move forward.” Throughout the trip, each of us were seated with a partner of a different race. My partner was BK, an African American pastor; BK and I shared stories of growing up, families, and pastoral experiences, as well as challenges and hopes in our lives. By the end of the journey, it was not just he and I who bonded, but all sixteen people who became an extended family.

Who Do You Say You Are?

Dr. Sangyil Park, Associate Professor of Preaching

This semester, our Middler Class has a very unique situation; we have only 3 students while there are 4 professors to teach that class. Since it is a required course, we cannot cancel it.  

Speaking of this, however, I found an interesting story. Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an Indian-American astrophysicist, was a professor at the University of Chicago. In 1947, he was scheduled to teach an advanced seminar in astrophysics. At the time he was living in Wisconsin, working at a nearby research center. What happened was that he found out that only two students had registered for his class. The school administration advised the professor to cancel the seminar. He, however, felt an obligation to respond to the call of the two students. So he made the more than 100-mile round trip every day, all winter long. Ten years later, those two students, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, both won the Nobel Prize for physics. And in 1983, so did Dr. Chandrasekhar.

Good students, of course, come from good teachers. But this particular story tells us that only when the students are honorable, may the teacher be honored. The good disciples make their teacher look good.  

The entire gospel of Mark is about discipleship—how we as the disciples of Jesus Christ should live. And I believe that today’s text sets the tone of Mark’s Gospel. This is where Jesus makes sure that his students understand what it means to be his followers. Unlike other Gospels, Mark really portrays Jesus as a human being; he was a man of character, a perfect human being with love and compassion for others. More importantly, he was a great teacher. And the teacher wants his students to behave in a way that people know who they belong to: Him. That way God is honored by their living.

Now, as Jesus and His disciples make their way through the valleys and hills of northern Israel, Jesus turns to His students and gives them this somewhat strange quiz, “Who do people say I am?” Well, the answer was not that hard. They easily replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” But Jesus comes right back to them saying, “Who do you say I am?”

“Who Is Jesus?” “Who is the man we call Jesus of Nazareth?” This is the question people have been asking for the past 2000 years! Who is Jesus? Many people go to seminary to have this question answered; many people wrote books and articles because they have burning desires for this important question. “Who is this guy?” “Who do you think I am?

Poor Peter… he was bold enough to raise his hand to answer that question. But, 15 seconds later, he ended up being called “Satan”

One thing is clear: at least in Mark’s Gospel, they are not sure about the identity of Jesus; not only Peter, but all the disciples were confused. But don’t say that it was only those fishermen who were with Jesus 2000 years ago. There are many of us who are confused even NOW. We all have our own ideas about God and many different answers to Jesus’ question. Conservatives have theirs; liberals have theirs too; and they do not even talk to one another.

Many of us know what has been happening on in the Middle East and Africa for the past few days. People have been killed in protests over the anti-Islamic video that led to a deadly attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya.

I had a chance to see the video and read some of the comments people made regarding the video. As I was reading through some of those comments, I was just shocked; the world is totally divided into two. There are so many negative comments about Americans; there were so many negative words that were exchanged between Christians and Muslims. Thinking about all these and today’s scripture lesson, what would Jesus say to those who say they are Christians and put all those negative comments out there? Jesus would say to us, “Who do you think you are?”

Loving Christ does not mean hating people of other faiths. Loving and following Christ means we take the cross; we may not be able to take the cross Jesus took literally; but we can show our compassion and love toward others no matter what.

St. Paul says “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” He wants us to bring honor to His name.

Self-denial is at the heart of Christian discipleship. John Calvin, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, says, “We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. On the contrary, we are God’s; therefore let his wisdom and will preside in all our actions.”

Jesus asks us: “Who Do You Say You Are?”

Are you a runner?

Dr. Sangyil Park, Associate Professor of Preaching
Are you a runner? What would happen if you slowed down?

Are you a runner? Then, how fast can you run? 9.58 seconds– that is the world record Usain Bolt holds. You may recall how popular the world’s fastest man was during the world championships a few months ago in Korea. People value those athletes who run fast, high, and long. That is where the money is; and that is where many people want to be.

In India there is a different kind of race called “the slow cycling race.” You have to come in last if you want to win the race. If you go as fast as you can, leaving everyone else behind, you will not win.

It’s like what Jesus says: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” In God’s kingdom, there is a different rule of winning; it is the rule of love and care.

The parable of the laborers in Matthew 20:1-16 challenges our modern understanding of fairness. Everyone knows we are entitled to hourly minimum wage and it is fair for us to be paid based on the hours we work. Yet the farmer pays all the laborers exactly the same amount. Those hired in the early morning complain that this is unfair because they were paid the same amount as the late comers. But for those who only worked one hour or two, it was undeserved grace for them to receive this full wage!

God’s love goes beyond our expectation and understanding of fairness.

It is interesting to see a similar story in Exodus 16:2-15.

When God provides Israelites with manna and quail in the wilderness, He does not allow some fast runners to go ahead of other people, getting more to save up for the future while some slow people lose the opportunity for their daily bread. Everyone deserves and gets their daily meal, not more, not less. Each day, God provides enough for that day. They are not to worry about tomorrow; God wants them to focus on today. All they had to do was trust the Lord. I wonder what the world would look like if today’s economy were just like that. 

In our life, we must be smart and fast in order to move ahead of others. We think we can’t afford stay behind. But Jesus always paid attention to those slow walkers. When Bartimaeus, the blind man, shouted, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, wait!” the disciples said to him, “Hey, be quiet, he is busy.” But Jesus did stop. He not only stopped, he paid attention to this poor man. He had compassion on him.

We need to walk slowly in life, to look around and see who is there, to listen and talk with them, and to make some eye contact.

People complain. “The whole congregation complained,” the Exodus text says. And it was the same with the laborers who worked in the vineyard. With life the way it is, we’re always tempted to join those complainers. And complaints always come when we raise the idea of fairness. But God isn’t too interested in fairness. He is more interested in loving and caring for His people, especially those slow walkers. Truth is this: had the people of Israel gotten what they deserved, they would still be in Egypt. Had the vineyard workers gotten what they deserved, some people wouldn’t have enough to live on. God is more interested in generosity than fairness, especially when it comes to the people who are in need. For God, there is real fairness only when there is love and care for undeserving people.

I don’t know about you. I always see myself as a late-comer. I do not deserve what I have. I do not deserve what I have received from God. But to God, love always goes beyond fairness; that is God’s way of being fair.

So, my question for you is: “Are you a runner?” How fast do you run?

God wants us to slow down a bit and look around. Look around and see who is behind you. Let’s see if we can walk together with them. “The first will be last, and last will be first.”

Reflections on 9/11

 
God's love is present, even when the world is darkest.
 
Dr. Sangyil Park, Associate Professor of Preaching

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul says. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” (Romans 13:8, 10)

On September 11th, we observed a special Sunday called Patriot Sunday, first to worship God and to commemorate those victims of 9/11, and then to remind ourselves of who we are as Christians and citizens of this wonderful country; we also asked ourselves what we are to do together to be agents of hope in this world.

As you many of you do, I remember clearly what happened ten years ago. I still recall the frustration and anger I felt when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were clouded with dust, smoke, and debris. I also remember how people responded to Islamic communities throughout the nation.

Since 9/11, Muslims in America have been living in fear. But it is not just Muslims. The life of everyone in this country has changed forever: people live with more fear than hope. And it affects every aspect of our life. I am not sure if it will ever change.

And today’s text clearly gives us the important message:

It is love that heals our wounds. Love never hurts anyone. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. No, only love can bring us together, nothing else. Paul says, we need to put on a right cloth, and the cloth is the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the king of peace; he is the symbol of love.

In history, however, Christians also made many mistakes. During the Crusades between 11th and 13th century, Christians waged wars to drive out the Muslims from Palestine, the Holy Land. And hundreds of thousands of people died in that efforts. Catholics killed Muslims in the name of Jesus, and Muslims killed Catholics in the name of Allah.

But that was not all. Christians killed each other too; there were many wars between Catholics and Protestants. But we know it is not what Jesus taught us to do. We know it is not what the Bible says to us. Jesus never supported violence.

“Owe no one anything, except to love another,” says St. Paul. “Love is the fulfillment of all the teachings of the Law.”

Love comes in many different forms. A few nights ago, I happened to watch Kitchen Nightmares. In the show, Chef Ramsay is invited to fix the problems of this French restaurant in Southern California. This French-born father opened the restaurant in 1972, and the place became a huge success. But not anymore; the food is not that great, though the chef of the restaurant thinks everything is fine. No one seems to be listening to anyone’s comments and ideas. The business is in terrible situation. Now, the father brings in Chef Ramsay to see if they can make any change.

Of course, the episode has an happy ending. The question is how? This is what happens. Chef Ramsay tells them that unless they make any change in relationships between the daughter and son of the owner, nothing will ever happen to the quality of the food they serve. Yes, the food was the problem; their business was not that great. But the bigger problem was this: once-close siblings now have a troubled relationship, thanks to constantly butting heads over how to run things in the restaurant. Chef Ramsay brings the family together; they make reconciliation. They realize they need to work together. The father cries as his son and daughter kiss and hug each other. After the big breakthrough, they join together to make changes in the menu, decorations, and all. The business has a turn-over. So, it is the love that makes a difference in people’s lives, nothing else. When we love each other, when we show our love to one another, there is nothing we cannot do together.

The world is darker than ever before. Although we may eat better food and wear better clothes than before, there are too many conflicts between family members, between people of faith, between people of different religions. The world is definitely getting darker each day. Because of this, our life seems to be tougher than ever before.

But here is the good news. God still loves us. The love of God that was shown through the teachings of Jesus Christ is still speaking aloud to us. And Paul said, “We need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to put on the cloth of love.”

Love wins; love heals; love restores; love brings us to light; love keeps us in hope. Love is the right outfit for every occasion in our lives. Amen.