May 3 Sermon: “Roots and Wings of the Wesleyan Spirit”
By Bishop Hae-Jong Kim, Pittsburgh Area
Acts 11:19-26; Isaiah 40:27-31
Aren’t you glad I’m not preaching in Korean? I think we are experiencing one of the historic firsts: this is the first time a Korean-American bishop has ever preached to a General Conference.
For the text for this morning’s sermon, I’d like to read an additional passage from Acts of the Apostles, the 11th chapter, beginning from the 19th verse. This is the story of the Antioch church.
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’”
(Acts 19-26, NRSV)
This is, indeed, a story of a church, the first Christian church really, that has multicultural implications. Since Alex Haley wrote the book Roots the importance of ethnic, national, cultural roots has been brought to the foreground. Finding one’s identity, or cultural or national identity, is so important for one’s well-being. More than that, it is so important that the ethnic and racial churches prosper because people find their identities in their churches.
In the story that was read this morning about the Acts of the Apostles in the church of Antioch, the people who went to Antioch were mostly Jewish people, the disciples. At first, they only preached to the Jews. It was a language-ethnic church. Then came some people with some Greek influence and backgrounds, and the church began to expand into a multicultural ministry. So the Antioch church began as a racial-ethnic church, but soon it became an inclusive, multicultural church.
We United Methodists have that experience because the Evangelical United Brethren church, from our branch, was such a church. They preached to mostly German people in the German language. And a similar experience is being experienced by Korean immigrant churches today. Just last year we celebrated the 100th year of Korean immigration to this country. The same year, the United Methodist Church, then the Methodist Church, started a Korean mission. So it was the centennial of the Korean immigrant mission as well. And Bishop Swenson welcomed us in Hawaii, and we had about a thousand people gathered there celebrating, remembering the past, thanking God for the present, and moving forward into the future.
The story of the Korean immigrant church goes like this: About 100 years ago, 102 people from Korea came on a steamship, the Gaelic steamship, to find a job as laborers in the sugar cane fields in Hawaii. 102 people, which happened to be the same number of people who came to the Americas on the Mayflower. Of the 102, 51 were Methodist people from one of the first churches established by Henry G. Appenzeller, the first missionary to go to Korea. 119 years ago he began to preach the gospel, and by this time there were many churches. There were 51 Methodists onboard their ship. But, listen to this: When they arrived in Hawaii 20 days later, the Methodists were 58. During the voyage, they converted seven new Christians. So began the history of the Korean immigrant church. So we are proud of our heritage.
Now, in Antioch, the mother of all missionary churches, the Antioch church had the same kind of experience as the Korean church and other ethnic churches are going through in our country. It began with one group of people, Jews in Antioch and Koreans in our context. But soon, the second generation began to emerge and soon people with other cultural backgrounds or experiences began to join, and the church expanded.
My three children are second-generation Americans, and we call them “Made in U.S.A.” My two sons are pastors and they call themselves S.O.B.s, “Sons of a Bishop.” My second son, Eusun, is serving under appointment by Bishop Johnson in New Jersey to Boonton United Methodist Church, which happens to be the church that Henry Appenzeller, the first missionary to Korea, served just before he went to Korea. So now, a Korean S.O.B. is a pastor there!
When I was a pastor, I had the privilege of helping our annual conference start some new Korean churches. And through my participation and contributions, some 18 Korean churches were started. Of all the Korean churches, four churches are large churches now, and their budget exceeds $1 million.
The choir you heard this morning is from Flushing, New York. Bishop Ernie Lyght appointed my brother, Joong Urm Kim, as pastor of the church. And we are so happy that they are here and blessing us with their beautiful songs.
So, roots and wings. The church of the roots—ethnic, racial-ethnic churches, African-American churches, Hispanic-American churches, Korean-American churches—they are the church of the roots. But our church, the United Methodist Church, through our mission history and evangelism, gave these immigrant people wings to fly. As a Korean American, the only bishop, I am called to serve as a general superintendent for the Korean ministries through the General Board of Global Ministries and jurisdictional missions. I was able to help start new churches for the Korean-American people. Now there are five jurisdictions and five jurisdictional missions, and they doing a wonderful job in starting new congregations—it’s the best-kept secret. In the last 10 years, some 50 new congregations were started by these mission superintendents, mission directors. They are sitting right here, and we thank God for them. They are the workhorses of developing new Korean churches amongst us.
The Antioch church was a church of the roots, but it began to give wings to the people. Barnabas, the first pastor of the church, was such a wonderful pastor—a pastor par excellence. He was good at enabling people, giving wings to the people. We can see that by observing that he went to Tarsus to look for Saul. Saul, who received the call by Jesus Christ to become an apostle to the Gentiles, was hiding in Tarsus because no one wanted him. Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul and to bring him to Antioch, saying, “Brother, let’s work together doing ministry.” So, Barnabas recruited Saul and gave him wings. In him, we see the first and best General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in action, recruiting leaders and pastors.
When I visit my area churches, oftentimes, the people with some connection to Korea come up to me and talk to me, especially the Korean War veterans. I thank God for them because they fought for the freedom of South Korea. I’m grateful for that, and that’s why we have hope for the Korean peninsula—because of them.
Another group of people that come to see me are usually the people who have adopted Korean children as their adoptive children. They come to me and tell their child, “Look, here is a Korean like you, and he is our bishop,” to give them a kind of self-esteem and assurance. What an important thing that was for them—to find their identity, find their roots.
I would like to share with you a poignant story of a young woman who was adopted by a United Methodist pastor’s family. She was half Korean—the mother was Korean and the father was an African-American GI. And, of course, she was abandoned and adopted by the pastor of the United Methodist Church. But she was going through an identity crisis as she became a teenager and adolescent. The father brought her to me, to my office, and said, “Maybe you can help me.” As she came into my office, I could see that she had a problem because she was wearing many pierced rings—all kinds of rings: nose rings, ear rings, and eyelid rings, you name it—and all kinds of funny hairdos. She was trying to find her identity, I could see. She was so angry that she had been brought there that she would not look at me. She was sitting across from me, but sitting sideways.
The father produced a letter that came from her grandmother in Korea, and said, “Bishop, could you read this in Korean and translate it to us?” So I began to read and translate the letter. It was so poignant. The grandmother had raised her a little bit when she was young, a baby. She called her by name and asked if she was well, if she was obeying her parents and if she was studying well—all kinds of grandmotherly concern. As I was reading it, I was so moved. I began to become emotional. I almost cried. And this young lady sensed that. In American culture, you know, a man is not supposed to cry. Here the man, the bishop, was almost crying, and she straightened up and began to look at me and listen to me.
I arranged for them to visit Korea because she wanted to meet her mother. I was able to find the mother through the grandmother, but her mother did not want to meet her because she now had a new family, a new marriage. She was afraid that her daughter showing up might jeopardize her new marriage. They went to Korea anyway and met the grandmother. But her own mother finally came to see her, in secret, because her motherly love prevailed upon her. So they met.
When she came back, she was a different person. Now she knew who she was. She said, “I am a Korean. I have a mother who loves me.” And she changed. A couple of years later when I was leaving Western New York and going to Western Pennsylvania, they gave me a farewell event, and she showed up with her father. She looked beautiful. She was much more mature, and she was much more self-assured. She hugged me and said, “Now I’m going to college.” She had found her roots and gotten her wings. Roots and wings.
We thank God for our mothers and motherhood and their love. I’d like to remember this morning two mothers, two immigrant mothers, my own mother and my wife’s mother. My own mother who prayed to dedicate four children to God, and now four of us are in ministry. And because of her prayer, five of her grandchildren are in ministry also—those made in the U.S.A.
Now my wife’s mother, Choong Ai Park, was remembered here in the General Conference in Indianapolis in 1980. This was the first time I was elected to be a delegate in our conference. While we were attending General Conference, we received a message that my mother-in-law died of an accident. We went home. We found that she was crossing a street because she found a new Korean family that had moved in several blocks from us. She was interested in telling Christ to them, sharing the Good News and inviting them to church. That’s what she was doing. As she was crossing, a car came down too fast to stop and hit her. She was killed instantly. She didn’t even speak a single word of English. When she first came [to this country], we were serving an English church and she was afraid to take phone calls because she didn’t speak the language, didn’t speak any English. We taught her one word, to just say they are not home. Even that was too difficult for her, so she would say, “No home” and drop the phone. But through an immigrant church, a Korean-language church, she was able to be active, and actively involved in service—including evangelism.
The church of roots gives wings to the people. That’s why some of our national plans—the Hispanic-American plan, Korean-America plan—and the language ministries are so important because these are ministries that give wings to the people.
In the Antioch church, because they demonstrated a beloved community as Christians, they received the name “Christian” for the first time. In Antioch they loved each other; they identified themselves so closely with Christ that they were called Christians. We can say that they were self-avowed Christians because Christ gave us our identity, Christ who died on the cross. Beyond our national or any other identity, Christ gave us Christ’s identity because he died on the cross, the tree that has no roots in the ground. For us, the root of the cross is to heaven.
In Luke’s gospel, we read the genealogy of Christ from his Hebraic roots, but also back beyond it to Adam and to God. Yes, the root of Christ. And the root of Christians, in a way, goes back not only to our ethnic or national roots, but also to Christ and to God. Those are our roots.
Through the episcopal address, Bishop Carder urged us to go back to our Wesleyan roots. First and foremost, the roots of the Wesleyan people are, of course, the word of God. Our theology and practice are deeply rooted in the Word—the written Word as well as the Word revealed in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word; and also the Word that is proclaimed and preached contextually by the people, the servants of God. Rooted in the Word of God. Root means that we go to the roots and find wings. Through all ministry and mission and evangelism, we give wings to the people. Our ministry is based on, and rooted in, the love of God and the Word of God. When the Council of Bishops begins the Children in Poverty and Hope for the Children of Africa Initiatives, we are giving roots through, going back through the roots, and giving wings to these people. Yes, we must go back to the roots.
But sometimes there is a danger in just going back to the roots, you see. Some fundamentalists do that very well—always clinging to the roots. The word fundamentalism in the Korean character means “back to the root-ism.” If you go back to the root and stay there without receiving wings for a positive and affirmative future, it can become destructive. Fundamentalism of all kinds—Muslim as well as Christian—is dangerous. It enslaves.
But we go back to the roots to receive wings, you see. We read in Isaiah that the people of Israel were in distress. They were in despair. They were weary. Isaiah calls them and tells them to go back to their roots, to Yahweh their God. “For those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with the wings of eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31). Go back to the roots and receive the wings.
That’s why we are so grateful to be working and studying the Disciple Bible Study series, which helps us to go back to the roots so that we may receive our wings. Through our faith in God, loyalty to Jesus Christ, and faithfulness to the Word of God, we will be able to free up our financial resources as Bishop Blake has said very well. We’ll receive our wings through giving until it heals. Giving in our church is not just a donation, you see, because all monies give wings to many programs and to many people all over the world. Going back to the roots to receive wings.
Our General Conference is really our roots—one of our roots. John Wesley not only called for conferencing, for meeting; but he also called conferencing a means of grace. So when we come together, we are going back to the roots and receiving our wings.
I’d like to conclude this sermon with a short story. A mother and child are talking, and the child says to her mother, “Mother, I would like to go far, far away.” And the mother says, “My baby, wherever you go, I’ll follow you.” And the child says, “Well if you follow me, I’ll become a fish and go into the water, the sea.” And the mother says,” If you go into the seas, I’ll become a big fish and follow you.” And the child says, “Mom, I’ll become a bird, and I’ll fly away.” And mother says, “If you become a bird, I’ll become a big tree and wait for you to come and roost.”
General Conference is that big tree—our roots. It is here that we all come to roost. Not to stay forever, but to energize ourselves, to receive power, to receive wings that we may go forward into the world to serve God and the people. May God bless us as we work here together, roosting in this great tree called General Conference. May we receive the wings of an eagle, so we may not get tired or weary in our working—even the tedious, pedestrian kind of work—so that we may run where we must run and be able to run with power. May God bless us. Let us pray together.