a welcoming, affirming, justice-seeking congregation

Sermon: Passionate Friendship                                Romans 13:8-14

Rev. Ha Na Park

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Three months ago, when I decided to seek a community where my gifts and passion could join with those of others, I found myself in a time that was very challenging, yet spiritually very deep and rich. I kept revisiting the process of examining my sense of purpose and reconnecting to God. I was periodically discouraged and overwhelmed with a sense of failure, yet strangely, I sensed that I was also empowered by discerning God’s fresh calling; I was deeply grateful. Applying for Immanuel was a leap of faith at that difficult time, but it was worth it, absolutely was worth leaping to this amazing, faithful community, Immanuel. After the interview in June, and even after being called, the last comment Ian, the chair of the search committee, made at the end of the interview made me smile, and I owe deep thanks to him because that comment really helped me understand what my true, authentic strength may be – “Deep and challenging.” (So, here’s a heads-up for you: I am deep and challenging.) When I was called to schedule the second interview, I had a stark sense of realization about who I was going to meet, with the possibility of being called here. I shared, presented, and showed my “challenging” strength as honestly as I could at the interview, and I was accepted! This was an unbelievable gift I received before I barely knew Immanuel. I thought, in this community, I can be me, and I will not need to change myself because it is ministry. And in its true meaning, if I am called to authentic leadership, I shouldn’t change myself. My personal vision statement I shared during the interview process was:

Embracing Diversity 

as Opportunities to Innovate 

through Creating a Positive Core and

extending Radical Welcome,

therefore, Making a Futuretogether,

inspired by the holy stories of God and God’s people. 

 

Another gift I received from Immanuel was quick in coming. Ian advised me that Immanuel might get busy more slowly than Meadowood (my last congregation) and I might not see many people when I started in September. To my surprise and joy, I was again amazed to see so many loving people take time to come out to meet me and offer me an exceptional welcome with hugging, kissing, notes, emails, gifts, shared stories and a birthday cake. After last Thursday’s Council meet-up, following Richard’s favourite habit, I counted how many Immanuel folks I met within my first week: twenty! Can you believe that? I am still truly amazed and will do my best to really see and appreciate what kind of unique, strong, welcoming and inclusive community of people I have joined. You are one of a kind!

In this sense of the gift of blessings, I invite us to hear the first line from the Romans text that Lynn Strome read for us. Verse 8. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

How will we understand this message? I am inspired to share that the friendship that crosses borders, the friendship that transgresses restrictive societal norms, the friendship that is nurtured at the margins is a true, liberating, hard-won expression of love. I was amazed by your welcome, not because I felt, “Oh, I’m feeling like people treat me like a lovable princess here!”, but because through your welcome I could see your deeply nurtured sense of friendship – passionate friendship toward one another -.

From my experience, I see why and how such genuine, loving, passionate friendship is a hard-won privilege, how it is transforming people’s lives, and therefore how it becomes a true gift that grows community.

The theme of friendship is very important to me. To me, friendship is a theological question. It is a question about how we let God in us “dissolve” restrictive boundaries of Self and the Other through the action of love, genuine curiosity and compassion. In ministry, it is an expression of faithful intention of how we become interested in somebody’s life for the benefit of the well-being of the Other, beyond self. For a long time, since I moved to Canada, I have struggled a lot to know how I can become somebody’s friend. If it is a friendship, I thought, it should start and be nurtured on an equal basis of mutual interest, and with the sharing of natural fondness.

Some friendships seem more “natural” to start and nurture joy – especially, if they are between people with the same ethnicity, culture, gender, language. I personally observed that “Non-whites” or POC (“persons of color”) can form friendships more quickly because they may feel “safe” with each other. Other friendships can be harder – when two people or the group is composed of White and POC. There are many factors which contribute to making such friendships harder to start and nurture. “White privilege” may play a powerful role among many other factors. Yet through the last decade, living in Canada, I developed some fear that others may see me through stereotypes rather than trying to see past the surface.

For example, I may not receive overtures of friendship from some people, because of their lack of interest in an Asian, immigrant woman, speaking English as their second language. I projected that fear onto myself until very recently, something which may have grown from my lived experience, but which has also become poison to nurturing positive self-recognition. Even though I am a visual minority, very ironically, the painful part of this experience of racism and sexism comes from “invisibility”. To illustrate, let’s imagine that you sit with your small group at class for a discussion. You are one of the three in the group, and the other two begin to talk with each other, shutting you out – even though you were the first one who said “hi” to them. They make no eye contact, or the eye contact is made late. They don’t ask your opinion or do it at the end.

To those for whom life’s hurt comes from “invisibility”: their cultural identity invisibility, their poverty invisibility, their sexual identity invisibility, when you have “wild space” (the part of you that does not fit the conventions of society), and you feel it is risky and not safe to share your struggle – your invisibility hurts. If you can’t share the truly beautiful complexity of who you are, your sense of identity, your questions about life and faith, isolation can be very hard for you, and for anyone. In this sense, friendship is a theological question, a ministry action, a life-long journey to find power to connect to each other, to connect to the world, and more importantly, connect to yourself.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us, in verse 12, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” How does the imagery of “darkness” and the “armor of light” make sense to us? Traditionally, black/dark has a negative association with evil, the regrettable past, the “colonized”, while white/light represents goodness, triumph, the power to “colonize”. We need to challenge these interpretations because this unfair polarity only supports the fundamental hegemony of white supremacy. Therefore, I would like to invite you to see that our concern may be more about the state of “apathy”, not darkness: apathy as a sense of unrelatedness to the Other or the other’s lives, especially those who are systematically cast out. Marginalized. Not fully included, within church or in our society. Apathy is, in my understanding, the attitude or sense of being privileged, oblivious, to think that we have the right to not know about the other’s struggles and pains.

In contrast, we can understand putting on the “armour of light” as undergoing a process of “self-emptying.” Imagine, only when emptying ourselves of our selves, can we let the light in, let it dwell in our heart, in the mirror of ourselves: reflecting others truly in their complexity of hopes, dreams, fears and passion.

We embrace the ultimate reality of interdependence, interconnectedness with the Other, as it is beautifully described, “I am because you are, and you are because I am.”

I have a dream for Immanuel. I hope that we can nurture a passion for the Impossible: passion for an unconditional love. Passion for absolute justice. Passion for an unconditional welcome. Passion for unconditional hospitality. These are passions for the Impossible, because they seem impossible in our ordinary lives. Passion for the Impossible may seem an act of dreaming, not setting a SMART goal: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.

Our contemporary, corporate world tells us to set a goal first, dreaming later only when you have time to do it. But I would say, we can set up a SMART goal only when we have a dream; but dreaming – we must do it now. I have a desire to invite us to the act of dreaming, because dreaming is unsettling. The act of dreaming is, ultimately, God’s unsettling work through us. 

To dream, we need to know our passion, to know our strength, and to have the confidence to know that, though many things may seem impossible to us now, we can still endeavour to accomplish them. The vision I have for Immanuel is that we will embrace diversity in our midst and in the world, not as barriers but as positive and transformative opportunities to innovate. Passionate friendship, that you have been so beautifully nurturing, in the community of Immanuel, may not be the solution, but can be the essential context for this vision. I hope you know that the culture of passionate friendship you have already beautifully deepened at Immanuel, if we intend to reach out, can save peoples lives and change the world.

Friendship is Passionate, because it is, essentially, love. 

When I tried to pronounce Eileen’s name, she warmly told me to remember,

I lean on you.” 

We are passionate beings, warm beings, human beings. We are beings who know the quality of love, intimacy and belonging. I think, physically, emotionally, spiritually, metaphorically, letting others lean on us, lean on our chest, as the beloved disciple does to Christ, is a breathtakingly beautiful thing. 

Passionate friendship is challenging. Passionate friendship crosses borders. Passionate friendship transgresses norms. Passionate friendship nurtures the vulnerable. Passionate friendship can be a life-line, liberation, hard-won self-expression and self-recognition. 

Let us treasure it, and foster it with our neighbours, outcasts, ourselves, and with one another. This is both a letter from our future, and promise of the future to come.

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