June 25, 2017 Sermon
Disciple: Privilege and Responsibility
Last week, I had a frustrating experience trying to choose hymns for today. Since today’s gospel text starts with how God cares for us, I wanted to find a traditional comforting gospel hymn. Before I came to the United Church, I was used to hymn books that are full of these comforting hymns. In the process of choosing hymns for today, I realized that the more the United Church moved towards works of peace and justice, the less evangelical it became; and a lot of beautiful hymns about our personal relationship with God were eliminated from our hymn books. After an extensive search, the hymn I originally wanted, “God Will Take Care of You” was finally found in the Songs of the Gospel, a tiny blue United Church hymn book published in the 50’s. I chose “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” instead.
While I am happy that the United Church moved towards peace and justice, I am saddened that we lost a lot of beautiful evangelical hymns along the way. I feel that evangelical Christians over-focus on their personal relationship with God and ignore the Christian responsibility, while we as a progressive and a more socially conscious church don’t speak of this relationship a lot. I realized the importance of balance.
Today’s scripture readings are about our relationship with God. Our gospel reading deals with our relationship with God but us as disciples of Jesus. Both in Genesis 21 and Palm 86, someone cries out to God out of distress, and God listens and provides care. Hagar was Abraham’s wife Sarah’s servant/ slave. God promised Abraham and Sarah in their old age that they would be blessed with a lot of descendants. There is only one problem; they are old and have no children. So, when Sarah heard that promise, she didn’t believe it. She couldn’t trust God’s promise because it sounded so ridiculous; so, she gave her servant girl Hagar to her husband that they might have a male heir through her. Hagar did have a son; his name was Ismael. But God’s promise came true and Sarah, in her old age, gave birth to Isaac. But now that the proper wife of Abraham had her own child, she wanted the servant girl and her son out of the way; she didn’t want Ishmael to compete with her son for her husband’s inheritance. God told Abraham to do as Sarah wanted because the servant girl’s son would also become a great nation. Abraham reluctantly kicked Hagar and her son out, with some bread and water. But water runs out quickly especially when you live in a dry wilderness. Hagar gave up and left her son to die, but since her heart was breaking, sat a good way off, and lifted up her voice and wept. God heard her cry and promised to take care of them. God did take care of them.
If you have been in a desperate situation, you will understand Hagar’s distress and worries, even to the point of giving up. But God is faithful. The message of God’s steadfast love from Genesis and Psalm continues at the beginning of our gospel reading. Today’s gospel reading has four parts with separate yet connected message about discipleship.
The first part speaks of how God knows and takes care of even the most insignificant creatures. “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” The second part is about acknowledging or denying Christ and our Christian identity. Denying Christ reminds us of the first century Christians, who, out of fear of a gruesome death, denied their Christian identity; but denying Christ and our Christian identity can come in different forms. Theologian William Barclay points out that conforming to the world instead of being transformed from it, not speaking out against evil and taking a stand, and not living by Christian teachings are ways in which one can deny Christ. This is why our United Church of Canada speaks out against injustice and works toward equality and reconciliation. This is why I preach against a certain corporation and a charity organization for operating by unchristian values. Our faith and love for God compel us to do so.
The third part speaks of division of families. Jesus says, he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword; to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, etc. When some great cause emerges, it can divide people; some answer the call, and some refuse or run away. The love of our family may influence our choices because our choices affect the whole family. I have seen in protestant ministers in Korea who avoid being called into rural parishes, difficult parishes, or being sent as missionaries because they didn’t want to sacrifice their family’s comfort and their children’s education. For them, the comfort of their families came before their call to serve. While seeing them, I thought, “That’s why Catholic priests and nuns are single.” Since they are single, they can be sent anywhere and they obey. People with family cannot do that so easily.
Now the fourth part is the climax of today’s lesson. It’s about the cost of discipleship. Jesus offers a cross and unexpected adventures. Jesus’ audience understood exactly what a cross meant; it was a common but the most terrible and painful means of execution. Early Christians needed to make a lot of sacrifices to stay faithful. Even we, who are not persecuted for our beliefs, have to make some sacrifices because ours is the religion of the Cross. We have to give up on small and big things to be faithful; from not pursuing wealth and power as our life’s goal to having to control our temper and forgive those who hurt us (although this one is quite difficult sometimes). Also, Jesus offers us unexpected adventures when we lose our life for his sake. If we lay down our desires, ambitions, and plans, God gives us something unexpected and better; that’s exactly how I ended up in Kimberley BC.
The essence of today’s lesson on discipleship is in verse 37 and 38. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” This is the essence of our relationship with God who knows us to the point of counting the hairs of our heads and takes care of us; privilege of being God’s children comes with the responsibility to live as disciples. These two parts (our loving relationship with God and living as disciples) cannot be separated. We are loved by God in the most intimate way, and as a response to that love, we live by the teachings of Jesus; this is the essence of our relationship with God.
This week, I encourage you to listen to and sing comforting gospel hymns that we lost over the years. One of my favorite old hymns is “It is Well with My Soul”. Know that you are loved and valued by God. Enjoy the privilege of being God’s children; God’s grace, blessings, forgiveness, and peace and joy that comes from our relationship with God. And touched by this love and intimate relationship, dedicate your lives to living out the gospel teachings; spreading the message of God’s unconditional love, compassion, and will for justice.
Rev. Sunny Kim