Preparing sermons is one of the most important tasks of a minister. It is also the most difficult. I’ve been given a lot of leeway in growing into this role, having to preach once a month.
When my turn is coming up, I start feeling it. One week, two weeks ahead, my mind starts getting into a zone. I become more attentive. Everything I observe or experience gets filtered through a sermonic lens. Everything has the possibility of bearing some insight that I can reflect on for the sermon.
It’s like training for a big race or the Olympics. During the week of the sermon, you feel the intensity and pressure start to grow. And it culminates until the climax on Sunday.
It’s a daunting task, because the question always looming over a preacher is: who am I that I should claim to speak a Word from God? I mean, that is quite the claim. Do I really have such a close connection with and access to God to speak a Word from God? As the faulty and flawed human being that I am?
It’s not easy, and preaching is a serious responsibility. Each time I get into the zone, Deb asks me: do you enjoy it? She has no idea why anyone would want to subject themselves to this stress.
I share this story, because I really felt the weight of this process preparing this sermon, with this passage.
Today’s passage is famous and well known. It’s also a very beautiful passage. What’s not to appreciate and like about it? There are many nice things to say about love, community and God. But I struggled so much with it. For 2 weeks, I read books and commentaries to understand the context, background, and to get new insights. But the more I reflected and read, the more stuck I became. And I realized that it’s because as beautiful as this passage is, it seems so detached from our present reality. Everything I read rested on one basic assumption: that we are able to gather and meet as a community. “Beloved, let us love one another” is a beautiful statement. What does this mean for people who can’t even see each other in person?
Today’s passage was written by John to his faith community. Neither he nor any of the other biblical writers would ever have guessed that we would be unable to gather together. It was just unimaginable. For over a year now, this virus has broken up our ability to do what God commands of us: to gather together to worship God and love one another. It’s broken up the fundamental way that human beings are wired to live: in community with one another.
God made it so that our two most essential needs as human beings – spirituality and community – are fused together. Inseparable. Deeply intertwined.
The writer John says: “…those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
The problem is, we have not seen each other. The issue is not whether we don’t love a brother or sister whom we see. The issue is that we cannot even see our brother or sister. Many of you have literally not seen each other in over a year. Can we really love a brother or sister whom we cannot see? How can we truly be a faith community without seeing each other? I’m thankful for our technology. I’m thankful for Zoom. I don’t know what we would have done without it. But we all know by now how poor a substitute it is for real human connection. At best, Zoom is a form of relational life support. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to let love flourish without the real-life encounter with another human being. And without this love for one another, the writer is basically saying that we cannot love God.
In other words, according to John, without human community, our relationship with God has also been suffering. We have basically been on spiritual life support. Our weekly Zoom services have been keeping us alive until we can meet again.
A Hurt Community
I’m so thankful for our worship service. I truly believe that it’s been a spiritual lifeline for many of us. Most of you have been so faithful, coming onto Zoom each week. I believe that our worship service has become a spiritual treasure.
But most of you have been the more mature members of the congregation. Through life experience and your own faith journey, you have come to see the importance of spirituality and faith. And so even without the human connection, our worship services have given you enough to get by spiritually. But for our younger members, this pandemic has been spiritually devastating.
I’m thinking about our college students and young adults, and our high school students. For them, coming online for an impersonal sermon doesn’t cut it. Meeting online by Zoom is a chore and a drain. For younger people, coming to faith and getting to know God is so connected with their relationships in the community, through the love they feel in the community. For our youth, the most formative spiritual experiences often take place at retreats, in loving community with their peers. It’s through friendships, supporting one another through life’s challenges, praying with one another, getting into conflict, learning how to work through them, finding forgiveness, reconciliation – all these relational things teach them about what God is like. They meet God through the embrace of the community.
The fact that our worship service has been missing whole chunks of our young people is an indication that our community has been hurting spiritually. It’s like a whole limb has been cut off. Our community is not whole when chunks of our community are absent. I pray and hope that this summer, our young people can reconnect and reestablish bonds with each other and the community.
Not only young people, but Rev. Chung preached a moving sermon to the KSM. He remembered members who have passed from us over the past year. He pointed out where in the sanctuary they used to sit. He remembered the love they poured out to this community. The love that built up this church. Yes, God builds his church through the people who love God and his people. We have all been feeling the void from our separation.
The language in public discourse has been about “mental health”. How our mental health has been suffering. I think that’s true, but I also think it’s deeper than that. It’s not just our mental health that’s been suffering. Our spiritual health has been suffering. The health of our souls.
Without the opportunity to experience God in and through the community, our souls have become sick. Our souls have become sick.
Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a great banquet. A lavish feast full of great food. The initial people who were invited didn’t accept the invitation, so the master ordered his servants to go out into the streets and round up all the poor, crippled, blind and lame to this dinner. After the servants did so, there was still room, so the master ordered them to go out again even farther, so that the house might be filled. This lavish banquet was about two things: food and community. Food that would feed them. Community that would heal them. It was not about either of them in isolation, but both of them in powerful combination. Intertwined. Inseparable. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Food is most delicious when eaten in the company of others. Our take-out food just hasn’t been the same, has it? First of all, it’s not as fresh, nothing compared to food that comes straight out of the kitchen. Second, it’s not as fun without the laughter and conversation. Somehow, good company makes food even more delicious and enjoyable. We are meant to eat food together.
This is at the heart of our sacrament of communion. Jesus gave his body and blood for his disciples at the last supper. In the same manner, we share the bread and wine with one another in community, and we also share ourselves with each other. And in that sharing of Christ with one another, God’s grace and Spirit is present. Communion is a feast where Christ’s grace is present in the gathered community. We tried doing virtual communion but stopped, because the virtual experience cannot replicate the grace we experience in person. When we come back, I want to enliven our communion so it’s what it’s supposed to be.
All of the metaphors and practices of our Christian faith feed who we are as human beings. They’re given to us by God to make us complete people. To feed our souls.
Because we can’t practice the things that make us fully human, our souls are sick. For over a year, you’ve been receiving take-out worship. It’s been feeding you, but it hasn’t given you joy that comes from community. I love praising and dancing around the stage, but it’s nothing compared to what it would be like with a full sanctuary.
Afflictions of Our Souls
I believe that the sickness of our souls is at the root of all the languishing, burnout, lack of motivation, concentration and indifference we feel. These things are all symptoms of the afflictions of our souls.
Over the past year, we’ve seen so many things that are not right. Injustices. Inequities. Unfairness. We’ve been bothered. Disturbed. Angry.
But our souls are too sick to truly care on a sustained basis. Just handling our day to day affairs takes everything we have. It’s like a sick person having to get up to exercise. Our souls are ailing and we don’t have the strength and motivation to do much beyond what we need to survive. Our lives have shrunk to the people and needs of our immediate, everyday lives.
We cannot love and care for others when our souls are sick. We need healing for our ailing souls. So that they can love again and come into fellowship with God.
Healing Through Faith
Jesus’ ministry was one of healing. He healed all sorts of afflictions. A woman with hemorrhages for twelve years came up and touched Jesus’ cloak just so she could be healed. Blind Bartimaeus, sitting by the side of the road, kept crying out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”. He would not be silenced by those telling him to be quiet. He wanted to see again. A Canaanite woman came to Jesus begging for him to heal her daughter. He said that he was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel, but she knelt and said “Lord, help me.” He became insulting, saying that it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. But she would not relent, saying even dogs eat the crumbs that are thrown off from the master’s table. In each of these encounters, Jesus did end up healing the people as requested. Jesus’ response in each of these encounters was this: “Your faith has saved you.” To the Canaanite woman whom he had insulted, he said this: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew 15:28)
Faith healed them. Faith was their refusal to accept their present situation as final. Faith was a belief that Jesus could heal them. Faith was a tenacity and determination that would not stop until they got what they needed.
That is faith, my friends.
This is the faith we need right now. A refusal to give in to our indifference, our apathy, our shrunken existence. Determination to fight against the numbness. And belief that God can shake me out of this.
Faith will bring God’s healing for the sickness in our souls. Our faith will help us love again and keep loving.
Coming Together as a Community
As people keep getting vaccinated, I believe there is hope on the horizon to resume life in community with others. But I think many people expect that things will just snap right back to how they were. I’m not so sure. If our souls are still sick, we will not easily come back together as a beloved community. Because if our souls are still sick, we won’t be able to love. It’s like someone like me, who hasn’t worked out the whole year, suddenly trying to run a marathon. You’ll get injured! Or it’s like someone who’s fasted for a long time, and suddenly tries to eat all the food at a buffet. You will get sick! Our college students will have a challenge reconnecting after long absences from one another, after they’ve gone through their own changes. It will be awkward for many of us. What will we say to one another? Without love awakened in our hearts, it will be easier to stay away.
My friends, we need to heal our souls now and learn how to love again so that when we do come together, we can come together as a beloved community, as the community described by John. So that we are ready to love this world around us that will need healing, mending and tending to. So that we are ready to do God’s work. I cannot wait for us to be together again with this love. Can you?
Let us fight our indifference with faith. Instead of a shrunken existence, let us fight to open wide and expand our existence. This is the year to Open Wide. Despite present reality, I really believe this is God’s will for us.
I reflected on what the best way to strengthen our faith is. A message from earlier this year came to me: the way to strengthen our faith is through praise.
Praise is a declaration of God’s reality even when what we see is bleak. I’ve never listened to as many praise songs as I have over the past year. They have sustained me in so many ways.
Every day, every morning or night, declare your praise for God. Open your mouth wide with praise, and God will fill your heart. Recite and listen to the lyrics of songs – some of them are so meaningful. Every Sunday, I go into the recording of our worship service and listen to the praise songs again.
Praise will strengthen your faith, the faith that fights for your soul. God will hear our praises and strengthen our faith. God will heal our souls and restore the love in our hearts.