About fives years ago I went for a two-week vacation to South Korea. Having personally never traveled outside of North America before it was for me in so many ways an amazing experience. The trip was also in part to meet my partner’s parents for the first time. Chris’ parents live in Seoul and it was in Seoul where we spent most of our time. Meeting the in-laws turned out to be an incredibly warm and wonderful experience – truly the highlight of our trip. I realize this is a sermon and I don’t want to turn it into a travelogue of our adventures – as mush as I would like to – but I would like to share a couple of experiences the later of which conveniently relates directly to the Gospel reading for today.
I happen to love Korean food and one of the many astonishing things about Seoul is that there are seemingly countless restaurants. Everywhere you look there is a Korean restaurant, either in a building or on a street corner or in the subway or on a rolling cart. Even more impressively they always seem to be more or less full. I started to think Koreans never actually buy groceries; they just eat out all the time. And why not? If you like Korean food, Seoul is the hallowed and sanctified ground of this persuasion of Asian cuisine. Chris and I feasted like kings, and I might add at very reasonable prices.
As I found out, however, you do have to take a modicum of care when partaking in the culinary delights of Korea. Apparently the municipal tap water can be dicey at times and I discovered it could be found in the form of crushed ice in a cold noodle soup. It was a particularly hot day and the cold noodle soup itself was delicious and entirely refreshing. A couple of hours later though that refreshment turned into an exceptionally nasty Korean version of Montezuma’s revenge. For the next two days the nicely appointed bathroom in our hotel became my space of choice and necessity. It did in fact get to the point where Chris and I decided that I should see a doctor so we trundled off to the local emergency room. Korean hospitals, like their public transportation systems, are incredibly efficient and we saw a doctor after a very short wait. She gave me a prescription, said I should not eat for a day and directed me to another room where a nurse would give me an injection. When I walked into the injection room the nurse motioned me over to a corner and then pulled a large curtain around the two of us. You just know that when the nurse pulls a curtain around the both of you, the injection is probably not going to go in the arm. Sure enough she did the international sign language for, ‘Bend over, pull your pants down and show me your bum’. The rather prodigious needle she produced to do the job was of momentary concern, but I just looked away and thought about England. I’m not sure, but I thought as she pressed the point home I think I could hear her whisper, ‘welcome to Korea’.
Now this particular story has no theological content whatsoever, save for the numerous exhortations of “Oh God, help me’, spoken by me in the aforementioned nicely appointed bathroom. Still, it does come with some sage advice. By all means do visit Korea if you get the chance; it is a magical place of ancient civilizations, vibrant colours, hyper modern urban centers, great food and wonderfully friendly and generous people. However, if I were you I would avoid with some urgency the cold noodle soup, no matter how hot the day may be. This story also provides a segue into the real story I wanted to tell you; the story that relates to John’s Gospel passage for this day.
The next day, when I was feeling much better, Chris and I decided to take the bullet train from Seoul to the southern seaport city of Buson. The train station in Seoul turns out to be two rather large buildings – one is the old station built during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and the other a more modern station. Not knowing where we should catch the train to Buson we went t to the Old station first. As it turns out our train was in the new station, but I am very grateful for our confusion because it allowed me to experience a moment that I am sure I will remember always. It was the kind of moment where God’s presence is so real and immediate that it becomes palpable.
The old station, for whatever reason, had become a gathering place for homeless people. It was raining quite hard that day so these destitute persons were finding shelter in the archways and overhangs around the station. Chris left me alone for a moment in order to find where we should go and as I stood there I notice a group of six or seven men sitting on scraps of cardboard leaning against the building. They were all listening to one other man who was standing up front and facing them. This man had a music stand in front of him and was reading from some notes. I’m not sure exactly why, because this man was speaking in Korean and I don’t understand a word of it, but I could just tell that what I was witnessing was a church service and this man was giving the sermon. The men sitting, and they were all men, were listening attentively. The man at the music stand finished what he had to say and then announced something and then counted a musical introduction – one, two, three kind of thing – and then they sang these Korean words: moden shin gwa chung jo mul / mok suree no peeo nore boruza. I of course didn’t know the words, but the tune was instantly recognizable. Looking tired, damp, malnourished and unclean these men began to sing: All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voices let us sing alleluia, alleluia.
In the Gospel today Jesus prays to God - Jesus tenderly says to His heavenly Father, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them”. As I stood there and watched them and listened to them I did have the sense that they were protected. Even though this small band of homeless persons were very much a part of this world in that they were directly exposed to the elements that would make them cold and sick and weary and hungry, there was something very real in terms of the spirit of God amongst them. Even though this unlikely church choir was not a part of the world we usually know in that they were pushed to the margins of society, and peace and justice and equality were ideals so far removed from their daily struggle as to be fanciful abstractions, I strongly felt there was with them the inalterable and never ceasing love of God. It is hard to put into plain words, but the love of God was powerfully there with them; it was palpable.
I do not in any way want to give the impression that these men’s physical sate or condition changed. The clouds did not part and light from above did not shine through. They did not stand up and sing with extra gusto or unbounded joy. They were still damp and dirty and sitting on scraps of cardboard. They were still going to be homeless, they were still going to be hurting human castaways in a sea of people when this hymn was over. But as I heard it - moden shin gwa chung jo mul / All creatures of our God and King, I felt that there was with them the reviving knowledge that they are loved. It was as if in this moment I felt that I shared with them their connection to God and their connection to God was the avenue through which they knew their creator loved them and valued their existence. I will never forget that moment.
Jesus prayed to God, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them”. What was God protecting these men from exactly, from the elements, from poverty, from dirt and disease? Clearly this was not the case. I believe God was protecting them from the final indignity – God was protecting them from the thought, surly confirmed many times over by a disapproving humanity - that they are worthless. In their own way they were praising God and from what I could see, feel and hear it was a soul-filled praise. They were praising God because through Jesus they knew they were not abandoned. In the hymn they were singing we hear the lines, “Let all things their Creator bless, and worship Him in humbleness”. In all my years of worship services I don’t think I have witnessed one more humble than this. They were blessing their Creator not for anything measurable that they had, for in a material sense they had nothing. They were blessing and praising God for the one immeasurable assurance we all have; that God loves us and will never leave us.
We who have the skills and the means and the resources are called to help the helpless and this we must do. God has provided us with a world that has enough basic resources for all and the fact that these resources are not distributed equally I believe goes against the will of God. But as we in our own way work to address this inequality – as we must – I think we should keep perspective that the basic necessities will sustain life, but that life is so much more than just this. I have never been fond of the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I”. I think this saying misses the point entirely. God’s grace is infinite and being infinite is equally and liberally spread amongst us all. This homeless group of Korean men knew God’s grace; they knew that God loved them. Their hapless situation was of this world and the solution to their situation rests entirely with us in this world. Jesus prayed to God and said, “Protect them”, and She does – with Her love.
Instead of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I’, perhaps we should be saying, “By the grace of God, here we are”. If God’s love truly bathes over all of us infinitely and equally then we genuinely are all brothers and sisters. In their singing I wanted to walk over and hug these men, but I didn’t – I wish I had. Who knew that from these damp and tired children of God sitting on scraps of cardboard that I could eloquently learn something so deep about God’s protective love? Welcome to Korea. Welcome to God’s world. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney