Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
6 April 2023
The dysfunctional family bickering at the dinner table during Thanksgiving has, unfortunately, become a kind of American tradition, one to which many of us can probably relate. Today, in our Gospel reading from Luke, we see some dysfunction in Jesus’ family – his spiritual family, that is, his disciples. Gathered to celebrate the Feast of the Passover, the disciples exhibit some bad behavior. One of them, Judas, is about to betray his friend and master to the authorities. And the others are arguing with each other about who is the greatest among them. And all this in the context of the sacred moment when Jesus institutes the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the central act of Christian worship!
The Gospels don’t paint a very favorable portrait of the disciples. In spite of all the time that they spend with Jesus and the friendship and intimacy that they enjoy with him, they often fail to understand his message. They just don’t seem to get it. And this isn’t the first time in the Gospel of Luke that they are arguing over who is number one. Earlier in the book, they had the same argument. Jesus responded back then by placing a little child next to him and telling the disciples, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48). But the disciples obviously didn’t know what he meant because here they are again arguing over the very same issue of who is the greatest. So, Jesus repeats the message: “the greatest among you must become the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 21:27).
Jesus rejects the disciples’ desire for personal honor and status. That is the way the world thinks. Jesus presents a new and different way of life, one that is not motivated by greatness and glory for oneself but rather by humility and service for others. And this is the life that we are called to live as followers of Jesus. But, as we know, this is easier said than done. We live in a society in which the game of status seems inescapable. Whether it is the neighborhood we live in, the car that we drive, or the clothes that we wear, we display our status. Our jobs and professions have their hierarchies, and we work hard to rise up the ladder of promotion and authority. Even the Church is not immune from the competition for status. Have you heard the phrase “purple fever”? It refers to a priest – or perhaps even a seminarian – who does little to hide the fact that they want to become a bishop.
Reining in our personal ambitions presents an extraordinary challenge for us. It goes against society. It goes against our human nature. For most of us, it will be a lifelong struggle. But we have help – divine help. Our Lord Jesus sets an example for us of humility and service for others. Today, immediately after the sermon, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, we, too, will wash each other’s feet. When the service is ended and we go out into the world, we will carry in our hearts a memory of this powerful symbolic act. And we will strive to live it out in our daily lives, serving in humility those with whom we live and work, as well as those for whom we pray: the aged and infirm, the widowed and orphans, the sick and the suffering, the poor and the oppressed, the unemployed and the destitute, the prisoners and captives.
In the struggle to overcome ourselves and live for others, we also find help in the Holy Eucharist. As we receive Christ’s Body and Blood into our own bodies in the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament, we unite with him and become one with him. And His Presence in the Eucharist grants us the strength, the spiritual nourishment, to carry out his work in the world.
In spite of all their faults and blunders, Jesus’ disciples eventually got it. They went on to embody the life of humble service that Jesus preached, and it is on their apostolic foundation that our faith rests. This evening, we join the disciples at the table that Jesus has prepared for us. We come to be fed with the holy food and drink of new and unending life. We come to be transformed that we might live no longer unto ourselves but for him who died for us and rose again, Jesus Christ Our Lord.
Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
2 April 2023
Palm Sunday is one of the most festive celebrations of the church year. Waving palm branches, we process outside the church, and we have glorious music to accompany our worship. But today, you may have noticed on the service leaflet, is also called the Sunday of the Passion. Our Gospel reading from Matthew takes us through what will happen to Jesus the rest of this week – the Passion or the suffering of Jesus as he is arrested tried, and executed. During this holiest of weeks of the Christian faith, our liturgy invites us to enter and experience the drama of salvation that took place two thousand years ago. As we speak and reenact the events, we become the crowds. We become the disciples.
Today, we join the crowds that welcome Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. The city is full of pilgrims who have come to observe Passover in the holy city. And the crowds are excited to see in person the famous preacher, healer, and miracle-worker. We read that some spread their cloaks on the road, others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road, and they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:8). Through their words and actions, the crowds proclaim Jesus the king, the messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy.
But then as we turn to our Gospel reading, there is a dramatic shift – no longer the joy and fanfare of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem but the sorrow and tragedy of His Passion and Death. We have a kind of preview of what will happen the rest of this week. What begins as a royal welcome for Jesus will end with his death on the cross as a criminal.
And, through it all, we become part of the events that lead to Golgotha. On Thursday, we will join the disciples at the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Holy Communion and when he washed the feet of his disciples. Then we will follow Jesus and the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and keep vigil in Jesus’ moment of agony as he prepares for the supreme sacrifice that he will make on the cross. It is in the garden where Jesus will be arrested. And what do his disciples do? One of them, Judas, who has betrayed him to the authorities, comes to identify him, and the rest of the disciples desert Jesus and flee into hiding for fear of their lives. And later Peter, one of the main disciples, denies even knowing Jesus.
On Friday, we will join the crowds again. But their mood will have changed. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Now, at the time of his trial before Pilate, they scream “Let him be crucified!”
As our readings and liturgy lead us through these events, we are more than spectators. We may not have been physically there two thousand years ago, but we are no less part of the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death, for it is our sins and transgressions that put him on the cross. As we read in the book by the Prophet Isaiah:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way
And the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6)
Like the disciples and the crowds, we, too, are guilty of betraying, denying, and abandoning Jesus. How many times have we, while calling him Lord and Savior, let our egos drive our actions? How many times have we conveniently hidden our Christian identity for the sake of acceptance by our peers? How many times have we failed to be faithful in our prayers and devotions? How many times have we disobeyed the command to love God and neighbor?
During this Season of Lent, we have been reflecting on our sins. That does not stop with Holy Week. In fact, the reflection on our sins intensifies as we speak and reenact the acts of betrayal, denial, and abandonment. We lay bare the worst of what lurks deep in our hearts and minds. As human beings, all of us have a bit of Judas in us. All of us have a bit of Peter in us. All of us can be fickle like the crowds, quickly turning from love and adoration to hatred and violence.
So, toward the end of this week, on Friday, we will join the crowds one final time, this time at the foot of the cross, to gaze upon the body of Jesus. At the foot of the cross, we will confront the paradox of our salvation. Jesus was condemned that we might be forgiven of our sins. Jesus died that we might have life. But, as we know, the story doesn’t end there. Death will not have the final word. For the rest of the week, as Jesus lies in the tomb, we will wait. We will wait for the promise of resurrection.
The Second Sunday in Lent
Text: Genesis 12:1-8
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
5 March 2023
When I read today’s Old Testament lesson about Abraham and his family leaving behind their home to journey to a foreign land, I find myself drawing parallels with the story of my own family. Like Abraham, my parents left behind their native, ancestral land – in our case, Korea – to move to the United States in 1971. At the time, I was only a little kid, so I didn’t fully appreciate the challenges and sacrifices that my parents experienced as they became immigrants. Like Abraham, my parents left behind not only their family and friends but also a life of comfort and privilege. From our history books, we read about the European immigrants who fled poverty, hunger, political unrest, and religious persecution to arrive on crowded, dirty ships to Ellis Island. In contrast, our family traveled by jumbo jet with layovers in Hawaii and Los Angeles. And where is the first place we went when we landed in the continental U.S.? Disneyland, of course.
My parents left Korea for two major reasons. The first was education. For all its faults, the American educational system, especially higher education, is the best in the world. Just look at all the foreign students on our college campuses today. The second reason was security. Having been refugees during the Korean War, my parents didn’t want us kids to suffer what they had to go through in the case of another war. As you know, even today, North Korea poses a major threat not only to South Korea but to the world. So, in short, it was for us kids that my parents made the move.
As I get older, I realize more and more what a bold, risky move it was for them to pull up their roots and move to a foreign country. But like Abraham, my parents turned to their faith in God for strength and guidance. And in all the years that they lived in their new, adopted land, never once did they have any regrets or complaints.
If I had been my parents, I’m not so sure that I would have had the courage to do what they did. It would have been so much easier for them to stay in Korea. Being risk-averse and a creature of habit, I avoid situations that pose unknown risks and challenges. I need a sense of control and don’t want to leave anything to chance. Sound familiar? I’m sure that I’m not alone in having this kind of personality. This past week, I just found out that I might be moving to a different part of town, and it unleashed all sorts of anxieties. I can’t imagine moving to a different country. So, I feel a bit hypocritical preaching this sermon. Of course, you know that it is always easier to preach than to practice what you preach.
In today’s text from Genesis, we read “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). We have no record of Abraham questioning or doubting the Lord’s command; he simply trusts and obeys. He gathers his entire family, packs up all his possessions, and heads to Canaan, the Land of Promise.
Abraham’s journeys will many twists and turns, but whatever challenges and problems he encounters, he trusts and obeys God. We read in today’s Epistle reading that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). It is his faith – his willingness to trust and obey – that made him just and right with God. It is for his faith that we remember and honor Abraham. And it is not just us Christians; Jews and Muslims also look up to him as their progenitor. In fact, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are known as the Abrahamic religions.
But Abraham was far from perfect. In fact, by our standards, he falls short in many ways. For instance, when he is in Egypt during a famine, he becomes afraid that because his wife Sarah is so beautiful that the people there will kill him to take her. So, what does he do? He lies and says that she is his sister (Genesis 12:10-20). And he does this not just once but a second time, when he is the land of the Philistines (Genesis 20:1-16). Like almost all the heroes in scripture, Abraham is flawed. He is human, just like us.
And yet whatever his failures and shortcomings, Abraham had a deep and abiding faith in God. He trusted God to safely lead him to the Promised Land. He trusted God to be with him every step of the way. He trusted God to grant him courage, strength, and guidance.
Abraham holds up for us the kind of life we are to live as Christians. There’s an old hymn that some of you may know. It goes like this:
When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will, he abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, there is no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
Trust and obey. That is the life of faith in a nutshell. Trust in God, not in ourselves.
Obey his calling, wherever that may lead us. And he will be with us every step of the way.
Where is God calling you today? He may not be calling you to pack up your bags and move to a foreign land, as he did Abraham. Or perhaps he is. What are the areas in your life in which God is calling you to something new and different? Where in your life is God calling you out of your comfort zone and into uncertain territory? Perhaps a new job. A new ministry. A new relationship. A new community. God may be calling you with an inspiring vision or perhaps a gentle nudge. Take the risk. Let go of the need to control. Open yourself to God. Trust and obey. The Promised Land awaits.
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
22 February 2023
Today, we mark the beginning of the Season of Lent with the Imposition of Ashes. This is an ancient custom dating back more than a thousand years in the history of the Church. The ashes are rich in symbolism. For one, they are a powerful reminder of our mortality. We will soon receive the ashes on our foreheads with the words: “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Being reminded of our mortality puts life into perspective. We realize how short life is. We reflect on how best to live the life that we are given. We focus on what truly matters in life.
The ashes also represent sorrow and repentance. In the Old Testament, we read of the tradition of wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes as an expression of mourning and repentance. For instance, in the Book of Jonah, the entire city of Nineveh – not just the people but even the animals – are covered in sackcloth and sitting in ashes (Jon 3:6) in a collective act of repentance. In the Early Church, Christians borrowed this custom and began putting ashes on their heads as a sign of sorrow for their sins. Then, in the Middles Ages, about the tenth and eleventh centuries, the tradition developed of beginning the penitential Season of Lent with the imposition of ashes.
This is a beautiful and powerful ritual with which to begin our season of repentance and reflection. But what do we make of the Gospel reading for today? In the passage from Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Mathew 6:1). You may be wondering: “Why then are we putting ashes on our forehead and going out in public?” There is a certain paradox between this passage and wearing ashes on our forehead for others to see. But, these days, I don’t think there is much danger of wearing ashes to show off our piety. To begin with, piety is not respected in our society, as it has been in other times. Indeed, in our culture, religiosity is often looked upon with suspicion and even contempt. It is even subject to mockery and ridicule. Remember the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live? So, far from impressing others, we actually make ourselves vulnerable when we wear the ashes on our forehead. We risk being seen as weird.
And, quite frankly, a lot of people won’t even know what to make of the ashes. Living in the Bible Belt, even many Protestants won’t know their significance. I’ve had many cases of people thinking that I just got dirty. Several years ago, the Office Professional in our department at school, a devout church-goer, came running down to my office with a Kleenex to try to wipe it off. And, believe it or not, I even had a professor of religious studies who mistook the ashes for grime on my face. So, considering the society in which we live, wearing ashes can hardly be a source of spiritual pride and arrogance for us. On the contrary, they humble us, reminding us of our mortality and of our sins and shortcomings.
Moreover, the ashes can even be an opportunity to witness to our faith. I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy to talk about my faith with others – and I’m a priest. I remember several years ago in graduate school, one of my colleagues was shocked when I told him that I was a Christian. It’s not that I was leading an especially decadent life; it’s because I rarely talked about my faith. But when we wear the ashes on our forehead, those who know what that means will know we are Christians, and those who don’t know, may ask, providing us a chance to witness and tell the world that we belong to Christ.
Dear friends, we gather today to begin the journey of Lent together. With the ashes on our foreheads, we commit ourselves to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We do these things throughout the year, but they take on a special intensity during Lent. We pray more, we fast more, we give more to those in need. And we rigorously examine our lives in the light of our faith. As Jesus entered the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan and to prepare for his ministry, we, too, enter a spiritual wilderness to confront our sins and shortcomings, to repent and reflect, and to prepare ourselves to follow Jesus in his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I pray that you will have a Most Holy Lent. Amen.
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Text: I Corinthians 3:1-9
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
12 February 2023
Last summer, I had the privilege of attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. A gathering of representatives from all across the United States as well as from abroad, General Convention meets every three years and is the main legislative body of the Episcopal Church. A couple of interesting facts that I learned while I was there – General Convention is the oldest bicameral legislature in the world, going back to our first convention in 1785, and it is also the largest legislative body in the world. There were around 1,200 bishops, deputies, and alternates from 107 dioceses. It was exciting to be there.
Yet, at the same time, the convention made me aware of the many challenges and problems facing our beloved church, from rapidly declining numbers to issues of social justice. And it was painful to see the divisions in our church. In the discussions and debates over the various resolutions, the differences in theology and politics became very clear. This should be no surprise. For an organization of 1.8 million members, there is bound to be a broad spectrum of views and opinions. What impressed me, however, about General Conventions are two things. First, in spite of our differences, we could have open and frank discussions. At a time in our polarized society when civil discourse and dialogue are far too rare, it was refreshing to see democracy in action on the convention floor. Second, and more importantly, in spite of our differences, all 1,200 of us prayed and worshiped together. This is the beauty of our Anglican tradition. Whatever may divide us, we come together in prayer and worship.
Divisions in Christianity are, of course, nothing new. In fact, they go all the way back to our beginnings. In today’s Epistle, we read of the problem of division in the early church. The Corinthian church is embroiled in factionalism, divided between a group loyal to Paul and another group loyal to Apollos. Paul had founded the Corinthian church, but Apollos had subsequently become more popular than Paul with some members.
Paul points out to the Corinthians how silly they are in creating such personality cults – “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos.” The fact is, they belong to neither. They belong to Jesus Christ. Paul and Apollos are only servants through whom they have come to believe in the Lord; Paul and Apollos should not be the object of their loyalty and devotion.
Divisions were a major problem in the early church. From theological debates over issues such as the circumcision of Gentile converts to socioeconomic tensions between the rich and poor, the New Testament is full of examples of dissension in the early Christian communities. Hence, because of these divisions, we likewise find many calls for unity. In Ephesians, for instance, we have this beautiful appeal: “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). The passage offers an antidote to the division and bickering: unity of the Spirit through humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace.
Part of my training for the priesthood was what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), in which I interned as a hospital chaplain in the St. Luke’s Health System. One of the lessons that I was taught in the program was to adopt an attitude of humility toward the people from other faith traditions, such as Muslims and Buddhists. This is a much-needed corrective to the past, in which we Western Christians have assumed an air of pride and superiority to non-Christian religions.
But the irony now is that while most of us have been educated to be conscientious about having an attitude of humility toward people of other faiths so as not to offend, we don’t always do the same to fellow Christians. And for most Episcopalians, that means those Christians of a more conservative bent, in particular Evangelicals or Roman Catholics. They are Christians no less than we are. And yet because of differences in theology and politics, we find it difficult to adopt an attitude of humility. We find it easier to dismiss or ignore them. It’s sad that we seem to have the most bitter fights with those closest to us. Think of all the controversies and schisms that have rocked our own denomination in recent years over such issues as gender and sexuality. And I confess my complicity in the internal feuding within our Christian faith. How many times have I been dismissive of Christians who do not share my theology or my politics? Do I even bother to listen? How many times have I failed to be humble, open-minded, and respectful toward my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ in other branches of our faith?
In Deacon Lynda’s sermon last week, she made the wonderful point that the metaphors of salt and light that Jesus uses in his parables are not aspirational. We are not called to become salt or light to the world. We are already salt. We are already light. And, today, taking my cue from Deacon Lynda, I would like to say that we Christians are already united, we are already one. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Whether we are Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, Evangelical or Pentecostal, conservative or liberal, we are all Christians first and foremost. Yes, that includes Low Church Episcopalians.
When we were baptized, we were reborn into a new family, joining the community of all the faithful, here and throughout the world. As the Apostle Paul states later in Corinthians, we are joined together as members of the Body of Christ: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we are all made to drink one Spirt” (I Corinthians 12:12-13). Through baptism, through the Spirit, we have already been joined as one body. We are all members of the body of Christ. Our goal is to embrace this fundamental unity of all believers.
We are sisters and brothers united in Christ. And as with any siblings, we will have our differences. But whatever may divide us, we are united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” All our differences in theology and politics pale in comparison with what unites us. As we sang in the opening hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord.” May God grant us the grace to live together in unity with mutual respect, humility, and love. For only then can we fully live into our identity as the Body of Christ.
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Text: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
27 January 2023
As many of you know, I teach history at the University of Central Missouri in addition to serving here at St. Mary’s. Our spring semester is in full swing, having finished up our third week already. This semester, I have the special pleasure of teaching a graduate seminar on Christian history, my area of specialty, and we get to read a lot of interesting books. Three of the books that I assigned were authored by former professors of mine from graduate school.
As I was preparing the syllabus, I decided to google one of the professors. I was saddened to learn that he had died recently. Of the three former professors whose works I assigned for the class, two have died, and one is still living, aged 93. I had almost forgotten that it has been almost twenty years since I was in school – almost a generation ago. But in my mind, I still picture my professors as they were in the classroom back then – imposing paragons of knowledge and scholarship. Some of you may have seen the movie or TV show “The Paper Chase.” Do you remember Professor Kingsfield? I had quite a few professors who resembled him.
If learning about the deaths of these beloved teachers and mentors wasn’t enough, I was further saddened to discover that very few people read their books these days; they’re considered out of fashion in the ever-changing academic landscape. This is quite sobering, especially since I’m an academic myself. These scholars were some of the most brilliant minds that I had encountered. During their careers, they made a huge impact in their fields and became famous. But now they are mostly forgotten.
Today’s Epistle reading is a powerful reflection on the nature of wisdom. It sets up a stark contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we read: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of his age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Corinthians 1:20). For Paul, wisdom presents a paradox. The wisdom of his time - the Greeks with their sophisticated philosophy and the Jews with their prodigious legal and religious scholarship – is foolishness, while what the world considers foolish – the Christian proclamation of Christ crucified, the idea of worshiping a God who died a criminal’s death - is true wisdom.
In this passage, Paul himself is a paradox. Paul was a highly educated Jew, someone who would have been called wise by others. Paul studied in Jerusalem with one of the leading teachers of the Law, Gamaliel. The product of an elite education, Paul’s brilliance and sophistication come through in his writings – and often make them difficult to understand, typical of a lot of scholars. Try the Letter to the Romans for some light reading. And, of course, Paul is the Church’s first theologian, the pioneer in systematically explaining the meaning and significance of Jesus for the Church. Yet here he is in this passage; he seems to be taking an anti-intellectual stance, dismissing the life of the mind.
Placing his comments in the broader context of his writings, Paul is not calling us to suspend our intelligence and enter a state of blissful ignorance. That would be hypocritical. What is at issue for Paul is the knowledge of God. For Paul, no matter how learned and wise we may be, we cannot know God through our own efforts. He states: “the world did not know God through wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:21). It is not through books or the exercise of our reason that we come to know God. Rather, we know God because he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Paul proclaims that Jesus is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:24). So, to know Jesus is to know God.
In looking at the history of Christianity, we have a rich and diverse depository of knowledge and wisdom. The theologians who succeeded Paul, the Church Fathers, continued the tradition of learning and scholarship, even combining Christian faith with Greek philosophy. And in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians and scholars dominated the intellectual life of Western Europe. In addition to the great thinkers, the Church also established countless schools, libraries and other centers of learning. In fact, the origins of the modern university are in the cathedral schools of the Middle Ages.
There is great value in learning. It illuminates and enriches our understanding of Christian belief and practice and helps us grow in our faith. And yet for all the book learning that we may have, even the wisdom of the Church, we will get no closer to knowing God if we do not heed the Apostle Paul’s call to experience the crucified Christ.
Yesterday was the feast day of Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian thinkers in history. There is an interesting story about Aquinas that reflects the paradox of wisdom that the Apostle Paul presents. The story goes that after decades of brilliant scholarship, he suddenly stopped writing in the year 1273, a year before his death. He did not write another word. He even left his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, unfinished, though even in its unfinished form, it is a cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology. We do not know exactly why Aquinas ceased his work. He made the decision to stop writing after celebrating Mass, so we think he had a mystical experience during the service, but we don’t know for sure. When one of his friends asked him why he stopped writing, he answered: "I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.” Whatever the reason may have been for Aquinas’s silence, it is clear that he believed his theological writings fall short of explaining God and Christian faith. To put it another way, he recognized that there are limits to wisdom in knowing God.
While Aquinas stopped writing, he remained faithful in his passionate devotion to the Holy Eucharist. He wrote some of the most beautiful Eucharistic hymns, many of which we use today, including Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels), O Salutaris Hostia (O Saving Victim), and Pange Lingua (Sing, My Tongue). And if you happen to have the laminated card with the Private Prayers Before and After Mass in front of you, one of them was written by Aquinas. While Aquinas stopped trying to understand God through his scholarship and writing, he never wavered in his personal experience of the crucified Christ in the Holy Eucharist. While reason may have failed him, he found fulfillment in mystery.
So, we, too, gather this morning at the altar for Holy Eucharist to proclaim, together with Thomas Aquinas, the Apostle Paul, and all the saints past and present, Christ crucified, foolishness to the world but the wisdom of God to believers. Christ is the wisdom that reveals God to us. Christ is the wisdom that unites us with God. Christ is the wisdom that will lead us to eternal life.
 Terrence Klein, “Thomas Aquinas fell silent when he learned the truth: The mystery of God is impossible to grasp,” America Magazine: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, 2 February 2022.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany/The Baptism of Our Lord
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 January 2023
Do you remember when you were baptized? If you were baptized as an infant, you may have photos of the event, but I can’t imagine you remembering something that happened when you were just a baby. But for those of us baptized at an older age, we have our memories. I fall in this second group. When I was born, my parents were not regular churchgoers, so I didn’t receive infant baptism. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I finally received this sacrament. At the time, I was attending a nondenominational church in Ithaca, New York, Bethel Grove Bible Church. I was baptized by immersion. I put on a white shirt and white pants and was dunked by the minister, Pastor Stern, in a small cement pool at the front of the church. I’m sure some of you here were also baptized by immersion. Anyone here dunked? Others had water sprinkled or poured on you.
There are many different ways to be baptized. In the early church, the candidate stripped naked and entered a large pool at one end, went under the water and then emerged to walk out at the other end to be clothed in a new white robe – pretty dramatic. I don’t think there are any churches today that have maintained this practice of baptism in the nude.
Whatever the manner in which we are baptized, it is the same sacrament. There are seven sacraments of the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Of the seven, baptism is one of the two so-called Dominical Sacraments, that is, Sacraments instituted by Our Lord. The other Dominical Sacrament is Holy Communion. These are the two most distinctive practices in Christianity, common to almost all believers; they define who we are.
On today’s Gospel from Matthew, we read about the origins of baptism: “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13). At this time, baptism was a form of ritual cleansing and purification in Judaism. Thus, John the Baptist preached repentance and forgiveness of sin to the people whom he baptized. But since Jesus had no sin, he was baptized to set an example for us for follow, a sign of solidarity with sinful humanity.
Likewise, when we enter into the waters of baptism, we become one with Jesus. In Romans, the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-5). In baptism, we die to our old selves and rise to new life in Jesus.
For Episcopalians, we have a list that describes what this new life entails. During the service of baptism, we make a series of vows in what we call the Baptismal Covenant. For instance, we commit to observe the doctrines of the church, receive Holy Communion, lead a life of prayer, repent when we sin, and so on.
Among these various vows in the Baptismal Covenant, one of the most difficult for me is this one: seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself (p.305). This is, of course, rooted in Christ’s command to love. At the Last Supper, he told his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Sometimes, I wonder why Jesus had to add love to the requirements for following him. I can discipline myself to prayer and worship and an occasional good deed, but loving all persons? Loving my neighbor as myself?
When I was in graduate school, I remember a conversation I had with an undergraduate friend of mine. He was very shy and quiet. He shared with me that what really drew him to Christianity was his inability to love. Christian faith, for him, held the promise of moving and expanding his heart to love more. At the time, I thought it was a rather odd comment. But as I have gotten older, I think it is quite profound.
It's not hard to love those who love us – our family, our friends. But our love often stops there. It’s difficult to love those whom we don’t know well - and perhaps even more difficult, if not impossible, to love those whom we know too well and hate. It’s often those closest to us, with whom we live and work and play, who are the most difficult to love – the family member with whom we have been estranged, the annoying colleague at work, the mean neighbor. Think of all the things that get in the way of loving those around us: grudges, slights, biases, prejudices, greed, envy, pride. To put it another way, our ego puts up many barriers to love.
At times we may be able to fake nice for the sake of maintaining cordial relations and call it love. But I don’t think that’s what Christ is talking about. It’s much more radical. He calls us to a self-sacrificing love, putting the needs and concerns of others above our own. And he calls us to love everyone, not just our friends but strangers and enemies. Jesus not only preached this; he set the supreme example. He died on the cross to save the whole world.
Christ’s command to love lies at the heart of our faith, but I need help carrying out it out. In the Baptismal Covenant, each vow is framed in the form of a question. So, we have: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” And the response to every question is “I will, with God’s help.” I will, with God’s help. I can’t do it alone.
One of the acts of personal piety that helps me with my baptismal vows is the practice of dipping our fingers into the holy water in the font or stoup. Each time we dip our fingers into the holy water and cross ourselves, we remind ourselves of our baptism and the covenant that we made. We remember that we have died to ourselves and risen to new life in Christ.
We’ve just begun the new year, 2023, and some of us are still drawing up New Year’s Resolutions – exercising more, losing weight, getting more organized, saving money, and so on. Perhaps some of us have given up already. Or perhaps you don’t even bother anymore. But today as we celebrate the the Baptism of Our Lord, might I suggest that you add one more to your list of New Year’s Resolutions: seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
 Diane G. Chen, “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17,” Working Preacher.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
27 November 2022
Today, we begin the Season of Advent, the period when we wait and prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem and in the Second Coming in all his glory at the end of time. As part of this preparation, one of the traditions in the Church is to reflect on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. So, during this Advent, we will have a sermon series based on the Four Last Things, beginning with the one today on Death. And, for our book study this Advent, we are reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which is an allegory about a bus ride from hell to heaven. So, while you may be shopping in the stores to Christmas carols on Muzak, here at St. Mary’s, you’re going to get a heavy dose of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
We often hear about how American society avoids the subject of death. For instance, we use the euphemism, “passed away” or “passed on,” instead of “died.” And these days we prefer the term “celebration of life” rather than “funeral.” It’s not just contemporary American society that is reluctant to confront death. In China, Japan, and Korea, there is an old tradition of avoiding the number 4 because it is a homophone for the word “death.” So, just as we treat 13 as an unlucky number and try to avoid it, many East Asians will go to elaborate lengths to avoid the number 4, such as not having a floor in a building marked the fourth floor. The psychological term for this fear and avoidance of the number 4 is tetraphobia.
In contrast to the world, our Christian faith does not allow us to avoid the subject of death. We have constant reminders of death. Just look around you. The columbarium, where the ashes of our beloved dead are interred. The relics, which are usually on our altar, but they’re not there today because it’s Advent. They’re bone fragments from the bodies of St. Cecelia and St. Theresa. And the crucifix, on which hangs the dead body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If these visual reminders are not enough, we have constant references to death in our liturgy. At every Mass, we pray for the dead in the Prayers of the People, and we remember Jesus’ death when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. And soon we will hold a Requiem Mass for our beloved parishioner and friend, Kristina Krueger, who died yesterday.
In our daily devotions, the service of Compline, the fourth and last prayer of the Daily Office, which we pray before lying down to sleep, is filled with references to death. It begins with the line: “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end” (Book of Common Prayer, p.127). The earlier version used to say, “a perfect death.” And later on, we find the prayer: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit” (Book of Common Prayer, p.132). These are the last words that Jesus spoke as he died on the cross (Luke 23:46). And Compline ends as it begins, with a reference to death.
Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel (Book of Common Prayer, p.135).
This is the Nunc Dimittis, the beautiful prayer that the aged Simeon prays when he encounters the baby Jesus, brought to the Temple by Mary and Joseph. Now that he has achieved his life goal, he can die in peace (Luke 2:25-35). Compline is, in short, a gentle reminder of the sleep of death that will come to us all.
But our Christian faith doesn’t just end with reminders of death. It tells the story of how death has been vanquished by Our Lord Jesus and gives us hope of eternal life in him. The reason why we are not reluctant to confront death is because it no longer has power over us. We need not fear death because of Our Lord’s work of redemption on the cross.
I've recently been coming across the phrase “holy death.” We don’t hear this too often in Protestant contexts; it seems to be more a part of Roman Catholic piety. There are prayers to die a holy death, and, in Mexico, there is even a saint named “Holy Death” or Santa Muerte, venerated by the faithful and whose image is a skeleton clad in a hooded robe and carrying a scythe and a globe.
When I first came across the phrase holy death, what first came to mind was a scene of a quiet and peaceful death, a faithful Christian who has lived a long and good life and is surrounded by family and friends on her deathbed. But not all faithful Christians die this way. What about those who perish in natural disasters or tragic accidents? And when we think about the martyrs of the Church, they died anything but serene deaths – mauled by wild animals, burned alive, decapitated.
Clearly, a holy death does not depend on the circumstances in which we die. We have no control over the state in which we will find ourselves at the moment of death. Nor is a holy death a kind of psychological state that we attain through our own efforts. Some of you may be familiar with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist manual for guiding your mind through the process of death. Other than Last Rites and individual prayers, I’m not aware of any counterpart in our Christian faith to such a guide for a holy death.
For the Christian, our death is made holy by the presence of Our Lord and Savior Jesus. As we read in the Letter to the Romans, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). In life and in death, we belong to the Lord Jesus, and we are made holy by this relationship, cleansed of our sins and saved from hell unto eternal life.
For me, one of the most beautiful parts of our Prayer Book is the Commendation in the Burial Rite or funeral service: “Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend they servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light” (Book of Common Prayer, p.483). In life and in death, we belong to Jesus. In life and in death, we are made holy by his presence.
Advent is a season when we reflect on the coming of Jesus in many forms. We think of his coming primarily as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem and in the Second Coming at the end of time. But Jesus comes to us in many other ways – in the hearing of his Word, in the receiving of the Blessed Sacrament, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. And, in the end, Jesus will come to us at the moment of death. He will be there, granting us a holy death. We will fall asleep in the arms of his mercy and awaken to new life with him.
 Charles Pope, “The Night Prayer of the Church as a ‘Rehearsal for Death,’” https://blog.adw.org/2019/09/night-prayer-church-rehearsal-death/
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: I Timothy 2:1-8
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
18 September 2022
The death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 has produced an extraordinary outpouring of grief all over the world. I've seen large-scale demonstrations of public mourning in the past for famous figures - political leaders, celebrities, and the like. But I don't think I've ever seen anything this big and moving - so many people from all different backgrounds and such heartfelt tributes of love and respect. In London, for the past few days, people have queued up in a long line to pay their respects as Elizabeth lies in state in Westminster Hall. In this final stretch before the funeral tomorrow, some may have to wait 30 hours in a 10-mile-long line. Here at St. Mary's, as soon as we heard the news of Elizabeth's death, we placed her portrait and lit a candle in our columbarium. And, this coming Saturday morning, we will honor Queen Elizabeth with a Solemn Requiem Mass.
In a way, the scale and depth of the mourning for Elizabeth should be no surprise. She reigned for 70 long years, and she lived an exemplary life of selfless service and duty to her country and personal integrity in spite of all the challenges that her family presented her. And, for us Christians, Elizabeth is a model and inspiration for our faith. In her annual Christmas messages, she spoke publicly about the centrality of Jesus Christ in her life.
But, as you have probably heard, not all the responses to her death have been loving and respectful. Within hours of Elizabeth's death, Irish soccer fans in Dublin cheered and chanted: "Lizzy's in a box." And as Elizabeth lay dying, an American scholar of Nigerian heritage tweeted: "I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating." So, what is it that Elizabeth did that has invited such anger and hatred? Well, it's not so much what she did but what she was. Elizabeth was the icon of empire, with its history of conquest, oppression, and exploitation. And the British empire was the biggest of them all. At its peak before World War I, it controlled a quarter of the earth's mass and a quarter of the global population. And there have been many tragic chapters in that history.
So, how do we view Elizabeth and her legacy? On the one had, we have the image of the virtuous, beloved monarch, and, on the other, the despicable head of a tyrannical empire. Well, it is not for me to tell you what to think. But I would like to reflect a bit on what our Christian faith has to say about the issue. More specifically, what do scripture and the experience of the Church have to say about empire?
Since I'm a historian by training, let me begin with the history. The relationship between Christianity and empire is a complicated one. Our origins lie in the Roman empire, which not only executed the founder of our faith, Jesus, on a cross; it carried out bloody persecutions against the Church for centuries. But then that all changed with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity went from being a persecuted minority religion to eventually becoming the religion of the empire. We went from being victims to agents of empire. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, but other Christian empires have followed: the Byzantine empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian empire. And, yes, the British empire was also Christian, and Protestant at that. Following Henry VIII's break with Rome, English monarchs have been held the title: Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Although the role is mostly symbolic today, Elizabeth during her reign did formally appoint archbishops, bishops, and deans of cathedrals.
For all its faults, the British empire was good for Christianity. Its global reach allowed the unprecedented expansion of Anglicanism and other denominations around the world as missionaries fanned out across various parts of the empire. And the missionaries planted not only churches but also built hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Through the schools, they raised literacy rates and introduced ideas about democracy and freedom. The missionaries also carried out wide-ranging social reforms, ranging from abolishing the practice of burning of widows in India to female infanticide in China. Christianity was good for the British empire.
The days of the British empire are long gone. It was dismantled in the decolonization that took place after World War II. But many see the United States as now the heir to the British empire. In its military might and economic power, the U.S. exercises a similar hegemony over world affairs that Britain once did. Likewise, we have had our share of blunders and tragedies in the history of our involvement with the world. And at home today we find ourselves polarized along political and ideological lines.
Whether it is the British empire or the American empire, our role as Christians has been the same: to hold the empires up to the ideals and values of our faith and to reform and to transform according to those ideals and values. As we look back on our own history, many of the great social and political movements, such as abolition, prison reform, women's rights, civil rights, were deeply rooted in our faith and led by devout Christians.
Our charge to reform and transform the empires in which we live comes to us from scripture. In today's Epistle reading from I Timothy, we read: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (I Timothy 2:1-2). The Apostle Paul calls on the early Christian communities to pray for their political leaders. Why? So that they might practice their faith in peace and freedom. What is striking about this call to prayer is the fact that these communities were under persecution by the political and religious authorities. They are, in fact, being called to pray for those who wish them harm.
We, too, are called to pray for our leaders, whether we like them or not. It is inseparable from our work of reform and transformation. We are not instructed how to pray for them. That is left to our conscience. A call to prayer is not necessarily a call to blind obedience and submission. After all, we are also called to pray for our enemies. Our prayer for leaders could be a plea for change in policy or even administration. We just began our weekly discussion of the lectionary this morning, and, as we were discusssing the epistle, Nancy Wagner shared with us that she prays that our leaders would live up to the duties and expectations of their office - we see so much incompetence and corruption these days. When we pray for our leaders, we may disagree on the content, but the important thing is the fact that we pray. It is a part of our work in the cause of peace, justice, and freedom.
In a few moments, Adam Powell will receive the Sacrament of Baptism. The rite of baptism is rich in layers of meaning. Through the waters of baptism, we die with Jesus and rise to new life with him. We renounce sin and evil and commit ourselves to a life of holiness. Baptism is also a rite of initiation into the community of faith. And, as the newest member of our community, Adam will join us in affirming the Baptismal Covenant, which concludes with these words: we "will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, p.305). And prayer lies at the heart of this commitment to make the world a better place, for it is in prayer that we find our vision, our courage, our strength.
In our Episcopal tradition, the call to pray for our leaders is part of our corporate worship. We pray for our leaders each time we gather for Mass. And the Prayers of the People have different forms to do that. Form I, for instance: "For our President, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord" (BCP, p.384). And in Form V, we can even name specific leaders: "For those in positions of public trust, especially Joe, Our President, Michael, Our Governor, and Lucas, Our Mayor, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, we pray to you, O Lord" (p.390). And today on the eve of her funeral we add to our prayer list, Queen Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Let light perpetual shine upon her. Amen.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 12:32-40
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
7 August 2022
Treasure-hunting is alive and well. I'm sure you've heard about the most recent Mega Millions lottery, worth $1.3 billion dollars. Countless Americans bought the tickets, hoping to be the lucky one with the winning numbers. I read that someone in the Chicago area had the ticket. That person's life will change overnight, soon to be propelled into the realm of the ultrarich. Yes, we hear about how most lottery winners are not really happy and how many of them squander away their wealth. But, to be honest, how many of us would not want a quick billion dollars? Think about the benefits and rewards that would come with that kind of money: the power, the status, the freedom to pursue whatever we wanted.
It is human nature to desire wealth and possessions. And our society celebrates the acquisition of money. The media hypnotizes us with icons of wealth and status, from multi-billionaires to celebrity athletes and movie stars.
In today's Gospel, we have a counter-intuitive and counter-cultural message about wealth. Jesus tells his disciples: "Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treaure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Luke 12:33-40). In contrast to the message around us to accumulate wealth, Jesus tells us to give it away.
Why? For one, there is no enduring value in our material possessions. Wealth comes and goes. Jesus employs the colorful images of worn-out purses, plundering thieves, and moth-eaten valuables to illustrate the fleeting nature of earthly treasures. I heard somewhere that most family fortunes do not survive three generations. What usually happens is that the generations that come after the founder of the fortune usually lack the same kind of hunger for money and end up spending more than increasing the family wealth. In last week's Gospel, we read about the rich fool who makes all sorts of plans for what to do with his money only to die the next day (Luke 12:13-21). As the cliche goes, you can't take it with you when you go.
But there is another, more important reason for not placing our faith in material possessions. Jesus speaks of a different, far superior kind of wealth, "an unfailing treasure in heaven." Unlike the treasures of this world, this heavenly treasure has enduring value; indeed, it is eternal in nature. What is this heavenly treasure? It is none other than Christ himself. Jesus is our "unfailing treasure in heaven."
Jesus is the treasure of God's precious gift of his own Son to the world. Jesus is God Incarnate, God in the flesh. And as God Incarnate, Christ is the source of all creation, the source of all blessings. Everything that we have and enjoy comes from Christ. And through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, he has become our Savior and Lord. We have the promise of life with him in this world and in the next.
Hence, compared to the treasure that we have in Jesus, everything else pales in comparison. In the parable of the Pearl of Great Price in the Gospel of Matthew, we read of the pearl merchant who finds one pearl of great value (Matthew 13:45-46). He sells everything he has in order to buy the one pearl. For the Christian, Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price, the treasure above all treasures for which we should be willing to sacrifice everything else. As we read in today's Gospel: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Throughout Christian history, many believers have done just that, given up everything for their faith. In the Gospels, we read of the disciples who left behind family and possessions to follow Jesus. And we have the long and rich monastic tradition of monks and nuns who have given up everything to take vows of poverty and service to the poor and needy. Yet, at the same time, we also have examples of wealthy believers in the early church who, though they did not give away everything they had, were generous patrons of the church and its ministries. And throughout Christian history as well as in the present, we have believers on all points of the socioeconomic spectrum. Based on the experience of the Church, the degree to which we sacrifice our material possessions for the sake of the faith seems to depend on our individual conscience, to what we believe God is calling us to do. Perhaps because of my very Protestant background (I don't know any monks or nuns), I personally am not aware of anyone who has taken the radical step of giving it all up.
But whatever sacrifices we make, even giving it all up, they are nothing compared to what we receive in return. From the treasure that is Christ flows a stream of spiritual riches that no money can buy. He is our Redeemer, who grants us the the promise of eternal life. He has conquered death and offers us unending life with him. And in this life, we have the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, sent by Jesus to provide us in our daily lives with wisdom and guidance, and comfort and strength in times of trial. And just as earthly wealth can provide the resources to do what we want, the spiritual riches that come from our relationship with Jesus also empower us, not to do what we want but to carry out God's will. Inspired and empowered by Christ, we do God's work in the world, feeding the poor, healing the sick, visiting the lonely, committing ourselves to peace and justice.
Earthly treasures, like the lottery jackpot, derive their value from being rare and limited to the few. But the heavenly treasure that is Christ is available to all of us. It is God's free gift. And it is available to us now. We claim this treasure every time we come to the altar for Holy Eucharist. As we receive the host and chalice, we receive the precious Body and Blood of Jesus into our own bodies. We thus become bearers of the treasure that is above all treasures: Jesus, God-Incarnate. Dear sisters and brothers, let us now join together and come to the altar to receive our divine treasure, the source of all blessings. And bearing this treasure in us, let us go forth to be Christ to one another in love and service. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!