“Bearing Fruit” Colchester Federated Church, April 29, 2018, (John 15:1-8) Fifth Sunday of Easter 

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus shared a meaningful metaphor with his disciples about how we are connected with one another and God.  Jesus declared that he is the true vine and that God is the vinegrower.  God removes every branch in Jesus that bears no fruit and helps fruitful branches bear even more fruit.  Jesus reminds us: “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.”[1]  It’s a beautiful image of how we can live fruitful lives if we truly abide in Jesus Christ.  We can’t go about our lives alone because branches can’t bear fruit alone.  We are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  And we are connected to Jesus and to one another on the true vine in compelling ways.

Now having just returned from visiting our Partner Church in Suwon, South Korea, and while the experience is fresh in my heart, it feels important to share some of the journey with our congregation this morning.  John 15 ends up being a perfect scripture because the time spent in South Korea brought Jesus’ message home—the interconnected nature of Christians around the world.  That we can be faithful and fruitful when we reach out to one another united in the love of Christ.  For Christ is the vine and we are the branches.  The two experiences I’ll share today will be our delegation’s tour of the DMZ (the Korean Demilitarized Zone that separates South Korea from North Korea) and worshiping last Sunday with our Partner Church (the Hanmok Church in Suwon.)

So we began the journey by landing in Incheon after a 14 plus hour flight from JFK in New York City.  We were immediately picked up at the airport by our Partner Pastors using one of their church buses and taken out to dinner.  Throughout our stay in South Korea, we had meals that were sponsored by various churches, pastors, elders, and deacons.  Keep in mind that there were 10 of us in the Connecticut Conference UCC Korean Partnership delegation plus the Pastors and Associate Pastors of our Partner Churches and other guests.  We didn’t pay for these meals and were frequently treated to amazing traditional Korean meals because hospitality is an important value in Korean culture.  Irene (the co-chair of the Korean Partnership committee and our wonderful translator) would announce who was sponsoring our meal and we would say a hearty “Kamsahamnida!” together to thank them for feeding us.  At that first dinner, we went around the tables to introduce ourselves and reconnect.  It was wonderful to see Rev. Choi again after he and his wife JongMee came to Colchester in November for my Installation.

The following day we all met up at Dong Bu Sun Lin Church and drove up to the DMZ.  The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.  The Korean War has been going on for 68 years—no peace treaty was ever signed.  That’s why the meeting that just happened between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Moon Jae-in of South Korea is so important because they seem to desire officially ending the Korean War.  From 1950-1953 there were soldiers from our country (including my grandfather and some of your family members) in Korea fighting as part of the United Nations forces.  Though the war has continued all these years later.

Needless to say, the DMZ is tense and there’s tough history here.  South Korea has opened up some of the area to tourists so you can tour the DMZ and see North Korea off in the distance.  North Korea built tunnels at some point into South Korea to potentially attack Seoul so we took a tram underground and walked for a mile inside one of these tunnels (The Third Tunnel to be specific.)  It was obviously a little cramped and you had to wear a helmet, depending on your height you needed to crouch down in places.  Throughout the Third Tunnel there were security cameras and gas masks in case of attack and the ending point was a heavy metal security door that was the only thing separating North and South Korea right there within the DMZ.

We happened to be in South Korea when the cherry blossoms were still blooming outside of Seoul.  There’s these gorgeous blossoms thriving among barbed wire and fences and buried bombs and helicopters overhead and security cameras and soldiers everywhere.  The cherry blossoms growing among the barbed wire became a searing image.  Because it ends up that the DMZ has actually had an explosion of life since there’s not human habitation in parts of this land anymore.  We learned that rare wildlife has returned.  Certain species that have dwindled or even disappeared in some parts of Asia have found a refuge in the DMZ, this 155 mile no man’s land between North and South Korea.[2]  New life has blossomed in the midst of a literal war zone.  Rare cranes fly above this land that is off-limits to people.  And if that’s not God somehow at work in the world I don’t know what is.

The last site we saw near the DMZ had a profound effect on our group.  There’s a beautiful train station restored by South Korea called Dorasan Station.  It’s the northern most train station in South Korea and used to connect North and South.  It’s still in service, but now only runs south to Seoul.  President George W. Bush visited the train station when he was in South Korea because it’s a deeply hopeful place.  There’s a mural on the wall that reads, “Not the last station from the South.  But the first station toward the North.”  The hope is that one day the trains will ride north again, and it will begin at Dorasan Station in peace.  Despite these many long years of war on the Korean Peninsula one can sense hope.  And we remember the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[3]

Now last Sunday I was in another pulpit preaching the word and speaking to the good people of Hanmok Church about Jesus as our Good Shepherd.  That day began early.  The children and youth of Hanmok Church have their own worship service to begin Sunday’s activities.  Going into their Children’s Chapel there was much excitement.  Some of the teenagers had even been practicing singing songs in English.  Children’s Worship started with the teens singing “Here I am to Worship” in English and playing piano, guitar, and bass.  The children of the church had been practicing a song and dance they shared.  And there was even a quartet of violins and cellos playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “You Raise Me Up.”  It was remarkable seeing the musical talents of these children and youth shared so lovingly.

I gave the Children’s Message on the 23rd Psalm and spoke about shepherds in the Bible.  Esther and Joseph (who teach the children) gave gifts to me and to the children of our church.  And that’s when I explained the bookmarks that our children had made and the teachers passed them out once they went into their own classrooms.  Judging from the smiles and proudly holding them up for me to see when meeting up with the children later, the bookmarks that Nicole designed were a big hit.  After Children’s Worship, the teenagers had a Q and A with me to ask questions about life in America, what our teenagers experience, and what our church is like.  Saeah (a church member who teaches English in a high school) kindly translated so we could understand one another.

Next up on Sunday was worship for the entire congregation.  Hanmok Church has two buildings that are across the street from one another.  So we hurried across the street to the sanctuary because Mikyoung (who translated my sermon into Korean for the main worship service) and I needed to go through my manuscript to decide when I would break and she would translate that section for the congregation.  After going over the details, Rev. Choi and I walked into worship together and the service began.  Preaching went perfectly fine.  Though Hanmok’s sanctuary has a large screen in the corner and some of the words of the liturgy had been projected during the service.  Fine, no worries.  Though what I wasn’t expecting was that during the sermon the system somehow focuses on the pulpit live.  So out of the corner of my eye in the pulpit while preaching I saw movement and then myself projected on the screen.  That was an interesting experience let alone having to pause right when trying to get some rhythm for the sake of translation.

Now our Partner Agreement that was signed four years ago was up in October.  We discussed continuing on with our Korean Partnership at Diaconate over these last few months.  And on behalf of our congregation I signed (in worship with Rev. Choi including a photo op, gift giving, and lots of cheers and applauding from their congregation) another four year Partnership Agreement for Colchester Federated Church to be in partnership with Hanmok Church, Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea.  What does the Partnership exactly entail you may wonder, here’s the specifics:

  • It is our hope that our partnership will help Colchester Federated Church and our Hanmok Church to better understand and fulfill the role and mission of the church in the world.
  • It is our hope that through this partnership we will grow in our ability to love our neighbors and to love God, because of what we learn together.
  • It is our hope to strengthen each other’s unique ministries, believing that we are all part of [the] body of Christ.
  • It is our hope that our partnership will serve as a bridge of peace which promotes peace makers of our two countries.
  • It is our hope that we will pray for each other, and for each other’s needs and concerns.
  • We enter this partnership for an initial four year period, open to the opportunity to renew our covenant in future years, always depending on God for wisdom and strength.

Now that Rev. Choi and other congregational leaders have visited us and I have visited Hanmok Church as Partners in Christ, it will be exciting to see how our relationship grows as part of the family of Jesus Christ.  As branches on the true vine.  For this partnership expands our horizons beyond our small town in Eastern Connecticut.  It makes us realize that we are part of a global Church.  That we can be peacemakers as Jesus called us to be.  And pray for one another in these tumultuous, yet hopeful times.  May it be so, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 15:4-5, NRSV.
[2] Jennifer Billock, “How Korea’s Demilitarized Zone Became an Accidental Wildlife Paradise,” Smithsonian.com, February 12, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/wildlife-thrives-dmz-korea-risk-location-180967842/
[3] Matthew 5:9.