Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
From Thanksgiving to Thanks-offering
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 26th November 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Leviticus 26:3-10, Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 17:11-19.
According to the Christian calendar, to-day is the last Sunday of the year. For the traditional Churches it is also the festival of Christ the King. Next Sunday, the 3rd of December, will be the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is not only the season of preparation and waiting; waiting for the birth of Jesus; it also marks the beginning of a new Christian year. In order to prepare for the Christian New Year, many of us worked hard yesterday, to thoroughly clean the church buildings, to put up banners and decorations… In this last Sunday of the Christian year, it would be most appropriate to offer our thanks to God, who for the past year has done wonders in our life. God never failed to love us and care for us, though often times God did it in God’s own way; in a way which we do not fully understand.
Many Churches throughout the world celebrate this Sunday with a special service of thanksgiving. Like what our children did a while ago, congregation members bring farm products, various kinds of vegetables and fruits as well as other things symbolizing the richness of God’s blessings, to be offered to God. This practice was originated from an ancient Jewish tradition: the celebration of the Festival of Tabernacles. Three thousand years ago, when the Israelites left Egypt, the land of bondage, and after 40 years in the wilderness in the Sinai Peninsula, they went into the Promised Land, Canaan. Most of them became farmers. Naturally it was extremely tough in the beginning year. After a lot of hard work, they were ready to harvest. So they built terbanacles to store their farm products. More importantly, they gathered and offered their thanks to God joyfully. Psalm 65 was written as a hymn of Thanksgiving and praise to God:
“You visit the earth and make it fruitful,
You fill it with riches;
The river of God brims over the water,
You provide the grain.
To that end
You water its furrows abundantly, level its ridges,
Soften it with showers and bless its shoots.
You crown the year with your generosity,
Richness seeps from your tracks,
The pastures of the desert grow moist,
The hillsides are wrapped in joy,
The meadows are covered with flocks,
The valleys clothed with wheat,
They shout and sing for joy.”
The modern “Thanksgiving” festival has everything to do with a group of puritans who left England on board the Mayflower in the year 1620. Life in a new land was never easy. So in their first harvest, they chose to return their heart-felt thanks to God. The federal government of the United States of America had long pronounced that 80 days after the Labour Day (i.e. the first Monday in September) is “Thanksgiving Day” and it is a public holiday across the nation. This usually falls on the 4th Thursday in November. On that long weekend, family members, no matter how far away they are, tend to go home and celebrate thanksgiving in joy with the entire family.
Nowadays, most of us live in concrete jungles. We are alienated from any kind of farm life. It is difficult to feel the joy like the farmers did after they reaped the fruits from their hard labour.
Half-a-century ago Hong Kong was a rather poor city. There was a Chinese saying, “a bowl of congee or a bowl of rice does not come by easily.” So in those days, whenever people had a bowl of rice to eat, they felt happy and were satisfied.
To-day, Hong Kong has become rather affluent. Things come to us fairly easily. Hence all of us tend to take things for granted. It was not that easy for us to have a thankful heart.
When I was a boy, whenever I received a gift, I was overjoyed and treasured it very much, though the gift may be small and did not worth much in monetary terms.
Nowadays, I wonder how many of us treasure gifts from our loved ones, friends or colleagues? No wonder instead of getting a wedding gift, oftentimes people simply buy a cash coupon for the newly-weds!
Fifteen years ago, five American academics published a book called “The Good Society”. It was the result of a research project for more than a decade. These were some of the findings. To-day, the book stated, most of the Americans were selfish and laxed. They were spoiled by the abundance of their own country. Easily, they could get whichever consumer goods they like. Most Americans had lost their zest to work. All they wanted was a good life, which was synonymous with material comfort and enjoyment. They received no challenge from their family, school, nor work place. They seldom thought of striving for the welfare of others. Take family as an example. Its members hardly felt that since they belonged to that family, they had a responsibility to contribute to its well being. On the contrary, they expected the family to take care of them and satisfy their wants and desires. Whenever the family could not satisfy them, they would just leave . The book concluded by saying that on the whole people did not feel that they exist for the society. On the contrary they expected the society to take care of their needs. Yet even by chance when their needs were satisfied, they would never bother to say a simple “Thank you”.
Is this also a vivid description of many of us? Indeed a thankful heart is foreign to all of us.
In the gospel lesson we just heard, Jesus healed ten lepers. But only one came back and thanked Jesus. As the Bible is a mirror of all of us, we need to look at that passage again and again, and asked the question, “how can I be that Samaritan who has a thankful heart?”
Apostle Paul had gone through a lot of hardships and tribulations in his life after his conversion. In his second letter to Corinthians, he wrote, “Compared with other apostles, I have been in prison more. I have been flogged more severely, many times exposed to death. Five times I have been given thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned; three times I have been ship-wrecked, and once I have been in the open sea for a night and a day; continually traveling, I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from brigands, in danger from my own people, and in danger from the gentiles, in danger in towns and in danger in the open country, in danger at sea and in danger from the people masquerading as brothers. I have worked with unsparing energy, for many nights without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty, and often altogether without food or drink; I have been cold and lacked clothing. And besides all the external things, there is, day in and day out, the pressure on me of any anxiety for all the churches. If anyone weakens, I am weakened as well; and when anyone is made to fall, I burn in agony myself.” (II Cor. 11:23-29, NJB). And yet with all this, Paul wrote to the Philippines these words, “Don’t worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart. And God’s peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7, TEV). A thankful heart makes all the difference in this world and in our life as well!
On 22nd November, 1963 at about 1 p.m. Eastern Standard time, the 43rd U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot dead. The whole nation, including myself who was a student at Yale at the time was shocked and dumbfounded. Six days later it was Thanksgiving Day. Both Mrs. Kennedy and President Johnson declared that both of their families would celebrate Thanksgiving as usual. Because of their decision, the whole nation experienced a new meaning of thanksgiving. A thankful heart can help us see the deeper meaning, hence the abundance, of our life. It enables us to move forward, even in the low ebbs of our life.
In this Thanksgiving Sunday, we thank God for giving us so much in our life. As Paul once said, “God’s grace is enough for me” (II Cor. 12:9). The greatest gift God has given us is not only our life, but also God’s forgiveness. We have sinned, both in the things we have erred and in the things we have neglected.
For example, God has put us in this great universe with all its beauty. Do we know how to enjoy it and care for it? More importantly, have we tried our best to protect it? The abuse or the pollution of the environment has become the second most serious problem in the world other than Poverty. Another example: We live in God’s oikomene. In it there are people with different cultural gifts, different abilities and different orientation in life-styles. This plurality is a great gift from God. Have we tried to embrace all of this or reject some of it only because of our narrow-mindednees and prejudices? In a word, we have been alienated from God and God’s creation. Because of our selfish will and deeds, we have also been separated from many other people, which include those who need our help, our colleagues, our friends and even our loved ones.
But through the sacrificial love of the Incarnate Christ, all our sins are forgiven. We can once again experience harmony in our life, with other people and indeed with God. We can experience “Shalom”, or “the peace which passes all understanding.” So Thanksgiving finally is about Thanks-forgiving.
We have received from God, much more than we realize. Do we want to share with other people, especially those in dire need a part of what God has given us?
What can we offer? A great deal! I have seen time and again many alternative abled people doing things even able people find it difficult to do. Not too long ago, there was a featured story in Ming Pao. It was about a 30-year old man, who without arms and hands used his feet to repair watches. There is a Chinese saying, “heaven gives birth to everyone for a useful purpose.” We do not give not because we are incapable of giving, but it is because we do not want to.
Indeed we are full of all sorts of excuses for not offering what we have. When I was a theological student in the U.S.A., I worked in church camps in both summers. I learned many camp songs. One which sticked in my mind entitled, “Use me O Lord, but not now”.
It goes something like this: The first verse: Use me O Lord, but not now; please use me only when I graduated from college. The second verse: Use me, O Lord, but not now; please use me after I have established my career. The third verse: O Lord use me, but not now; please us me after I have gotten married and started my own family. The fourth verse: Use me O Lord, but not now, use me after my children have all grown up…
Beside the excuse that there is no time, other excuses included: we do not have enough education, nor talent, nor experience…
We are all familiar with the parable of three servants as recorded in Mt 25:14-30. The three servants received five, two and one thousand silver coins respectively from their master. The morals of this parable is not about how much the servants received; it is about whether the servants make use of what they have. Likewise some of us may have a Ph.D., others with only primary education; some of us may be wealthy, others as poor as a church mouse. That makes no difference. Our love and care for someone in need; or our kindness and a smile to the people we have never met oftentimes can go a long way. The issue of giving or sharing is not a matter of quantity, but always it is a matter of our mind and our heart.
One day, Jesus sat near the temple’s offering box and watched the people as they dropped their offering into the box. There came a poor widow, she carefully put two little copper coins into the offering box. Jesus had this to say, “I tell you this poor widow put more into the offering box than all others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches, but she poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4). So thanks-offering or thankful giving is a matter of our attitude. This is what Jesus had to say about the greatest and the first Commandment, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind; and the second greatest resembles it; you must love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-40; Mk 12:28-31; Lk 10:25-28 and Jn 13:34-35).
God has given us more than we realize. Every life is like a gold mine. When we dig deep, we are bound to find some gold. A person with a thankful heart and a heart of sharing will always find within hmself or herself a great deal of hidden potentials and talents.
A person with a thankful heart will seize every opportunity to do greater things. There was a story about the great conductor Tusconini. Tusconini, a violinist, was suffering from severe myopia. He could not see the music clearly. So he worked hard to memorize all the music. One time, just prior to a performance, the conductor felt ill. Since Tusconini knew the music well, he was asked to be the substitute conductor. It turned out to be a very successful concert. This marked the beginning of Tusconini’s career as one of the best known conductors in the 20th century.
Thanksgiving is the basic attitude for every Christian. We thank God for the many gifts God has given us, the greatest of these are God’s forgiveness to us and a life full of love. Let us decide then to turn our life into a life of thankful-giving.
God is Love
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 19th November 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang.
I John 4:7-21
There is a saga about John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples. In his old age, John went to semi-exile in a Greek island called Patmos. One day, Christians gathered for a meeting. John was asked to be the preacher. Those who gathered expected John to give a lengthy sermon about Jesus’ teaching and miracles. To their utter surprise, John stood up and mumbled three words, “God is love” and then sat down. No more words. There was silence. Yes, God is love. This is not only the core message of the Johannine writings (which include the Gospel of John, three letters by John and the Book of Revelation); it is also the fundamental doctrine of Christianity.
God is love. But in facing difficulties, we cannot avoid asking, “if God is love, why we have to face difficulties; and why are there so many tragedies and incessant human suffering in the world?
We learn from periodic reports of the various agencies of the United Nations that at least one-tenth of the people in the world have to go to sleep at night with an empty stomach. They do not have clean water nor a safe shelter. When they are sick, they receive no medical care. Their children do not have opportunities to go to school. Two years ago, prior to the opening of the United Nations general assembly in October, many heads of state gathered for an “Action Against Hunger and Poverty” summit. The Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva pleaded passionately, “How many times will it be necessary to repeat that the most destructive weapon of mass destruction in the world is POVERTY?” We live in a calamitous and seemingly hopeless world. Where is God?
Then, there are serious natural disasters year after year. In September 2004 typhoon Jeanne hit Haiti. Nearly half of Haiti was wiped out due to heavy landslides and floods. At Christmas 2004, a Tsunami hit many parts of Asia causing more than 200,000 deaths and millions lost their homes. In August 2005, typhoon Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, destroying many towns including the famous tourist city of New Orleans. Then there are constant earthquakes, droughts, floods in China, in many parts of Africa and in the Arab World.
Many a time, fundamental Christians tried to explain that God used these disasters to punish people who were unfaithful to God. God used the Tsunami to punish the non-believers in Thailand (where most of the people are Buddhists), Indonesian (Muslim and Buddhists). God used typhoon Jeanne to punish the greedy Haitian land owners who cut the trees in the land they owned indiscriminately and sold them to furniture factories in Europe and Taiwan. God used Katrina to punish the sinful city of New Orleans (quoting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah from GEN. 18-19). No, as Christians we must reject this simplistic and unloving theory. God is love. God is merciful. Even in God’s judgment, God let Adam and Eve live and protected them so that they would not be harmed (c.f. GEN 3). Similarly in the other three human “fall” stories (GEN 4, 6-9 and 11) we can see clearly that as God is the God of justice, God had to judge. But even in God’s judgment, God’s mercy was ever present.
God is love. It is our unloved, uncaring, indifference, ambitions which undo, conceal or withhold God’s love. It is often our selfish desires which ruin our relationship with people and destroy our trust in God.
We do not fully comprehend why people have to suffer. In the story of Jesus healing a blind man, Jesus’ disciples asked the same question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him.” (JN 9:1-13). One of my favorite hymns of praise is “God moves in a mysterious way: the wonders to perform”.
We do not fully understand God’s will and God’s activities. But for those of us who claim that we have faith in God, because of this faith, we must also dare to affirm that in the midst of turmoil and ordeal, God never gives up on us. “Emmanuel”, God is with us. God is love. God never turns away from all human suffering. In fact God always stands alongside the people who suffer. In the story of the flood, it was recorded when God saw that “the earth was corrupt and full of lawlessness, God was grieved at heart” (GEN. 6:6). Theologians like to call this, the pain of God.
God is love. God responds in God’s way to all human suffering. This was the way the Exodus Event began: Yahweh said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying for help on account of their taskmasters. Yes, I am still aware of their sufferings. And I have come down to rescue them from the clutches of the Egyptians and bring them out of the country…” (EX. 3:7). This Exodus Event thus has become the prototype of God’s saving acts. The whole history of Israel, by extension all of human history, thus became God’s Salvation History (Heilsgeschichte). As Christians, we should believe that God is the God of history. Out of God’s love, God acts in history incessantly. God saves us from chaos to order, from darkness to light, from fear to faith, from despair to hope, from hatred to love. Through Jesus Christ, God has granted the peace which passes all understanding (PHIL 4:7) to each and everyone of us.
God is love. “God hates nothing that God has made”, so says the Anglican collect (short prayer) on Ash Wednesday. In fact “God so loved the world that God gave the only son so that everyone who believes is God may not perish, but may have eternal life.” (JN. 3:16). Jesus Christ, the incarnate God (God became flesh/human). “Came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (MK. 10:45). Jesus fully manifested God’s love for all humankind and finally being crucified on a cross through his suffering. Jesus’ sacrificial love was able to conquer all (paraphrasing the very last words of Jesus’ farewell discourse in JN. 16:33). This includes alienation, human pride and prejudice, ignorance and self-centredness… As Christians, or to be precise as Jesus’ disciples, do we need to follow Jesus or at least try our very best to imitate Jesus, in our thoughts, words, acts and life style? All his life, Jesus witnessed to God’s love and justice. So must we. Our faith in God always has life inflictions.
Pope Benedict XVI, shortly after he began his papacy visited Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Poland where tens of thousands Jews were exterminated in the 1940s. This was meant to be a sign of reconciliation: between the Roman Catholics and the Jews. It was also a sign of repentance by the Germans (the Pope is a German) as well as by the Catholic Church.
In strolling inside the camp, Pope Benedict offered prayers and was in a somber mood meditating throughout the brief visit. Then obviously shaken, he uttered, “Where was God when all this happened?” Serious theologians would say that the Pope raised the wrong question. The question he should have asked is “Where was the Church in all these insanities?” As a matter of fact, the Roman Catholic Church did little to prevent the rampage of Hitler. The Roman Catholic Church pontiff at the time, Pope Pius XII remained silent throughout the Nazi atrocities. His silence was widely criticized, especially by Rolf Hochhuth’s powerful drama, “The Deputy” which was published in 1964.
We all live in a global village, to be even more precise, God’s oikoumene. We are all linked together. As God’s children, we are all sisters and brothers. We are interdependent. We need each other. We cannot say that whatever happen in the far corner of the world has nothing to do with us. In every human calamity, we should ask, “Where was I?” Was I concerned or indifferent?”
There was a Negro spiritual called, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”. The crucifixion of Jesus certainly has everything to do with us. But we are used to be bystanders. So we must repent. We must turn our insensitivity and apathy into love and concern.
As Christians, we all believe that God is love and that we should not only love God but also love one another. But oftentimes we set limits to our love. We choose to love only those whom we think are worthy of our love. But was this what Jesus taught us? Jesus loved especially all those who were marginalized; who were despised by the mainstream in society, such as women, the Samaritans (the non-Jews), the poor and the sinners. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (LK 10:25-37), Jesus tried to introduce the idea of “limitless love”. Indeed God’s love is without limits. The Christian Church is always eager to engage in evangelism. However, often our ultimate goal is only to convert people, who disregard their belief and culture, into Christians.
We are in Asia. Asia is not only the biggest and in terms of race and ethnic background the most complex continent in the world. Almost half of the world’s population live in Asia. Let us not forget Asia is also a continent of immense spirituality.
Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Taoism all have their roots in Asia. (Many even argue that the Judeo-Christian faith also has its roots in the East.) Since God is the God of all humanity, God loves the Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindi just as much as God loves Christians. In our evangelistic efforts we must be more humble in dealing with people who follow different living faiths. After all, Christians are an absolute minority in Asia. We must learn to appreciate the teaching and practice of various faith traditions. In trying to witness to God’s love, we must respect people who are faithful to their traditions.
There was a story in Sri Lanka. A Christian boy has a good friend who is a Buddhist. One day his pastor told him that as a Christian he can go to heaven. The young boy asked whether his good friend who is not a Christian can also go. The pastor quoting from the Bible that “only in him is there salvation” (ACTS 4:12), answered, no he cannot. The boy then said, I would rather stay with my friend and not go to heaven. “Not Without My Neighbour” has become the title of a book by Wesley Ariarjah of the World Council of Churches. This story certainly gives us Christians some food for thought. We should be serious about our neighbours. All people, especially those in need are our neighbours. We should love our neighbours as ourselves. In answering the lawyer who tried to justify himself by setting limits to God’s love, Jesus ended the parable of the Good Samaritan (LK. 10) saying, “Go and do the same yourself”. The Samaritan has shown us that love is without limits. He, the Samaritan, took great care of a Jew who needed help though despite Samaritans and Jews were (and still are) enemies.
We live in a world of uncertainty. In this day and age, people do not trust one another. As a result, we are very afraid to love, to be involved in the life of another person. We simply do not want to get hurt. Let us hear once more John’s insights:
“In love, there is no room for fear but perfect love drives out fear”
(I JN 4:18).
If we truly accept God’s love, we will not be anxious. But instead, we can be free, free to love our sisters and brothers whichever their culture and religion; economic and political backgrounds.
We all have our limitations. We may not be able to do a lot to change the world. But doing something is always better than doing nothing. If all Christians in the world dare to reach out our hand and take that extra step, God’s world will be better off. It will be more humane, just and peaceful. Consequently, more and more people will be able to enjoy their life as given by God.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we give you thanks for your boundless love. Through Jesus Christ you also have given us the command to love each other. Grant us grace to fulfill it. Mold us to be more gentle and courteous, generous and forbearing. Sanctify our relationship with all our relatives, friends and colleagues. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Church’s Task- to cross over
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 29th October 2006 by Bishop John Victor Samuel. The scripture readings that day were Mathew15:1-28, Leviticus 20:22-27 and Romans 14:1-11.
Peace of God be with you. I would like to thank Rev. Kowk Nai Wang for inviting me to worship with you this morning and share my faith with you.
I was given the freedom to choose the Bible readings for this morning. And I have chosen a portion from Saint Mathew 15:21-28. This is in the heart of a section, which deals with the issue of the Kingdom of God, as a new community grapples with the religious tradition of the existing Jewish community. All of this obviously had huge implications for new religious movement of Jesus Christ.
The whole story, one can say, can be found from chapters 11 to 16. Here we learn how the community deals with the good news of Kingdom of God already announced by Jesus Christ. Keeping oneself clean was a religious tradition. A person was required to avoid touching unclean objects, which was, in fact, anything identified as being unclean. A person was also required to refrain from touching or eating anything that would defile them or make them unholy. All this could only be achieved if the Jewish people set themselves apart from the community and have social contact only with those like themselves. This simply meant that the community had to be isolated from the world. Most of the stories in Mathew deal with these issues and the traditions of the Jewish religion, many of which were brought before Jesus by the Pharisees from Jerusalem.
In this larger section we also see how Jesus, time and again, crosses to other side of the lake or to another territory. The act of each crossing brings change and health to people. The crossing also brings new resolve and new enthusiasm to Jesus as well. Every one involved in the act of crossing experienced health and wholeness. Interestingly, in this larger section there are also two episodes of feeding the crowd. One group had five thousand men and other group had four thousand. Jewish crowd was on the Galilee side and Gentile crowd was on Gennesaret side.
We read in this section that Jesus crosses over to Genesaret. It is true that crossing over brings us to new situation and this newness of the situation brings change. It is note worthy that every crossing starts the process of change. Pharisees and Scribes cross over to Gennesret - Jesus again cross to the region of Tyre and Sidon. As I have said before that every crossing starts a process of change. The change happens on both sides. This change can be felt for both who cross and for those who meet them at the crossing. This process also sets in motion the healing and wholeness of one kind or another.
Before we go into this discussion, I would like us to look more deeply at the chosen text. The episode of the Pharisees and Scribes is interesting. They came from Jerusalem, which was the centre of Jewish religion and tradition. They represented authority of tradition and were the official exponents of the religious traditions. They began their discussion with Jesus on the very simple matter of washing hands before eating – making oneself clean before eating. They were in a Gentile region, and even by a casual touching of a Gentile, could have defiled themselves. Washing before meals therefore, was an important issue to them; but Jesus does not answer their question. Instead, He raised a larger question of law and tradition, which He felt the Pharisees and Scribes changed to suit their own convenience. For example, “Honour your father and mother” was the law and tradition, but the Pharisees and Scribes changed this when the question of property arose. They changed the meaning in order to protect their own properties.
Jesus quoted Isaiah to reprimand them and saying, “This people honours me only with their lips….” Only then does He talk about the issue of clean and unclean. Jesus said,
Listen and understand; what goes into the mouth does not make anyone unclean; it is what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean.
When disciples informed Jesus that the Pharisees were not too happy with this, Jesus replied,
Leave them alone; they are blind leaders of the blind; if one blind person leads another, both will fall into a pit.
This is a sharp response. What Jesus was leading them to was a much broader reality of the created world.
Let us now come to a central section of the discussion. This is the main story. Jesus goes to the Sindon and Tyre. The exposition of any truth is always difficult. The language of symbol comes to our aid and our body language conveys what words are unable to convey. Sidon and Tyre are two ancient cities. Sidon is the older, several centuries old, invaded by the Babylonians, Syrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. Each power left behind their mark of culture, tradition, along with their small population to make their contribution. Every time a power invaded a city, they confronted people and their culture. And of course they influenced the population they overpowered.
But the subjugated too also managed to exert influence in a subtle manner. Thus it was that each side affected the other, resulting in a ‘new’ culture and tradition. The presence of Jesus can also attest to the changes of culture and tradition in Sidon. Thus Sidon becomes a very strong symbol of changing of culture with the passage of time. It was just at this time that a woman with sick daughter pleaded with Jesus His healing hand on this young girl. The mother was a Canaanite woman, a Gentile woman; a woman from the unclean section of the human community as seen by Jews. She pleads and asks a favour of healing. A mother pleads for her daughter. Who else could make such an impassioned plea? As the mother, only she could feel the pain of her child. She did not ask anything for herself, only pleading for her loved one. She asks only for another’s need.
It is here at Sidon, that some thing of great importance happens. The question of clean and unclean raised by Pharisees was uppermost in the mind of Jesus. The Canaanite woman brought further pressure on Jesus to resolve this issue. His disciples, find the woman a nuisance and just want to give the woman what she wants. This further exacerbates the pressure. It is at this point that Jesus becomes more reflective. He says aloud
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But the woman continues to plead for help. The pressure on Jesus was great. It was under the agony of pressure, it seems, that He responds, “How could children’s food be given to dogs” – which was also a word used towards Gentiles. The woman answers back, “Yes lord, but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters table.” What confidence and what faith this woman has! It helps Jesus make a decision,
Woman you have great faith. Let your desires be granted.
Are we not reminded another place where Jesus says,
In truth I tell you, if your faith is the size of a mustard seed and you will say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you. (Mathew 17:20)
It might seem great to you and me. But in Jesus, it is not. He gave a final resolve to all those listening,
Let your desires be granted.
Health was restored. It is with this that a new tradition was born. The tradition of being concerned for others. The tradition of equality of human beings. The tradition of loving every person. For Jesus, the separation of humans on the basis of tradition and religion was a hindrance for health and wholeness.
The interesting thing in this entire section is that it is not learned doctors of religion and tradition who helped Jesus to resolve this issue. It was a Gentile woman, and the needs of a youth, temporarily ill, but soon to be well. It was these two vulnerable members of the community who provided the occasion for Jesus to be resolute.
I want to emphasize this aspect in the story. It is weak, Gentile and a woman who helped Jesus to come to this resolve. I recall a story I read of Mother Teresa when a group was visiting her home in Calcutta for abandoned children. One person expressed his admiration for her work and said, “I do not know how to do all what you are doing, but I am greatly impressed. I admire you for what you are doing and I wish I could also do something like this.” At that time, Mother Teresa was carrying a small baby in her arms. She handed over the child to the man, replying, “This child will teach you” and she went off to do other work.
How easy it is to ignore the small and helpless people, thinking that they cannot teach us. Yes, but we learn. We can learn that when confronted by situations, if we have the right attitude and free ourselves from all our prejudices, we no longer need to stand apart from rest of humanity. Standing aside firmly on our turf and endearing our own traditions is divisive. A divided humanity is a danger to our world.
The world in which we live today is a brand new world. New values have emerged. We are learning that in our security, peace and justice, we require a common understanding and must forge a common struggle. Nothing can be achieved by standing aside with wishful thinking. There are methods which are being employed to teach others how they should learn to live in harmony with others. Nothing is working. Guns will not create peace. Guns and bombs will not create security. Systems of population control will not last. It is true also that the world is struggling to experience life. We seek life. A life in which there is peace, security, justice, happiness, harmony, and freedom from wants. In the words of the Gospel of Jesus, we are seeking life abundance. (John 3: 16) We are seeking a system which will ensure that these needs and these values will be fulfilled.
The old traditions are in direct confrontation with the new aspirations of people. The old traditions demanded isolation, whereas our new world demands harmony of people. The traditions made us feel superior to others, whereas new values demand that we create a common human family to live in peace and harmony. To follow the tradition of clean and unclean, the traditions of separating people on the basis of our traditions of food, dress, faith and calling others with derogatory names is living in constant hostility with the people of the world. This is the way we create hell for ourselves and for others.
This is not what our world wants. The world today is serious for peace and harmony of communities. Peace and harmony cannot be achieved when our traditions demand that we work for separate development for the communities. In fact, there can never be any development by isolating ourselves from rest of the world. Our security is bound with one another. We cannot imagine that any one community with their own traditions will survive. We can build our ghettoes and build walls around us, but we cannot make our ghettos secure. We cannot isolate our selves from the rest of the world. We have seen over the years the emergence of universal values. These are the values that are appreciated by the entire world. Peace, reconciliation and rights of people, have become the legitimate demands of the entire human family. Peace and harmony within the family, community, nation, region and the world are common dreams of every one, young and old.
These dreams demand some basic work from all of us. The issue of one religious tradition over against the value system of modern society has become an important issue for the modern world. Each society created a system by which its survival, benefits and security is designed. These traditions and laws were created in the context of realities they faced yesterday – in the past era.
In the course of history we find a brand new world, with its own realities. This brave new world is charming and attractive on the one hand and scary and frightful on the other hand.
This morning we have been trying to see how Jesus has responded to the old traditions and new demands. We also tried to see how tensions created by old traditions and new demands helped Jesus to resolve the issue once and for all for us. His new resolve was understood by St. Paul who said “in Christ there are no male or female, no slave or freeman…..”
Is it not the unity of human family and the aspirations for peace, harmony and values of justice and freedom in the human life that we call a life that we all seek and aspire for? We call a life linked to the kingdom of God. Is it not the calling of church to give good news of the Kingdom? We have to cross over or reach out to people who stand there. Our position is not important. The coming of the Kingdom is important. It is my prayer that God may give us the courage to begin the process of crossing over and reaching out.
“Where there is No Vision, the people get out of hand” (Prov. 29:18, New Jerusalem Bible)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 12th November 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. Readings heard during the service were from Isaih 42:1-4, Philippians 3:12-16 and Mtthew 17:1-8.
Over the 41 years of ministry in the Christian Church, I have personally encountered numerous local churches engaged in quarrels or even splits. In several cases, I was even invited to step in and help. But as a rule, the success rate was zero.
In looking back, most of the problems local churches faced were nothing more than personality clashes between few individual board members or between two groups of active members. Moreover, most of these fierce conflicts were originated from very trivial matters. This was especially so in the beginning. In one case, the quarrel was over whether to introduce an evaluation system among all staff members. Some thought this was a way to improve staff performance; while others thought this measure amounted to disrespectful of their ministers. As a result, the minister-in-charge resigned and several board members became inactive. In another case, the minister, supported by many younger members proposed to employ a youth minister. However, several deacons of that church thought that there were already two ministers and a third one would cause financial strains of that church. Consequently, the minister-in-charge resigned and the in-fight between these two groups of church members continues even up to this day.
As I reflected on the disharmonious situations of these churches, I have come to the same conclusion. These local churches failed to understand what the Christian Church is all about. They considered their church as merely a human organization. If a church fails in its appropriate self-understanding, it is difficult to come up with a road map regarding where it, as a church of Jesus Christ, should be going.
“Where there is no vision, the people get out of hand”. This is the translation of Proverbs 29:18 of the New Jerusalem Bible. The Revised Standard Version says, “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraints”. In a word, when there is no vision of any institution, churches included, its members will go asunder; go their different ways and do their own little things.
What then is a Vision: A vision is a finishing-point which people go towards. Apostle Paul said, “I am racing towards the finishing-point to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14). A vision can be the goal which gives people meaning of existence either individually or corporately.
A case in point is the present situation in Hong Kong. Compared with 40 years ago. Hong Kong is now quite affluent. The per capita GDP is around HK$ 200,000 per annum. But from what I can gather most citizens in Hong Kong today do not have a purpose in life except to work hard and make money. There is very little or even no meaning in their life.
That was not the case in the 1960s. Hong Kong was a lot poorer then. I worked in Shek Kip Mei, the first resettlement estate in Hong Kong. Many families I know lived in a 10 by 12 square feet cubicle. Their livelihood was tough – earning just enough to eat and to clothe. Yet I feel on the whole they were a lot happier than the people to-day. The sense of caring for the family and for the neighborhood was a lot stronger than what we have to-day. Their life goal was very simple: to live life as it is.
Every body of people, the church especially, needs a vision. I believe the Israelites did. That is why despite all of its tragic history, massive suffering and diasporas, it remains to this day one of the strongest body of people in the world.
As early as the eighth century B.C. The Israelites had come to realize that they were God’s chosen people. God chose them to be a light to all nations or to bring God’s saving justice to every corner of the earth (c.f. the servant songs of II Isaiah). Because of this vision, the Israelites were able to overcome any hardships and transcend all immediacies, which often got people into trouble.
Having a stated Vision is very important for any institution. I was never trained in social work. When I was asked to be the Director of Hong Kong Christian Service, I decided my major contribution to this mammoth social service agency in Hong Kong was to create a vision for it. So together with the service supervisors, we drafted a mission statement. Very briefly, it stated that Hong Kong Christian Service was a Christian social service agency. It was Client-centered. It attempted to manifest the Christian spirit of love in every single type of service we provided. It was simple, yet effective. In the following years, I made a point of meeting with as many as the frontline workers as possible and explained to them what Christian service or diakonia or humble service meant and how it could be applied in their daily work. Throughout the ten years I was there, I detected the overall spirit of staff at every level was high. They all had a sense of purpose and direction.
Kowloon Union Church needs a new vision as it goes into its 83rd years of existence. Just in the past decade or so, Hong Kong has changed a great deal: from a British Crown Colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. It seems that human rights and freedoms are more restricted and overall life more rigid. As far as our Church is concerned, though it remains as an international and ecumenical church, it has become more Asian in every sense of the word. So KUC needs a new vision. That is why I am here. I am here to help you all to forge a vision for the future. I am here not as an ordinary minister, doing all the chores any congregation expects its minister. Indeed, most of the ministers of local churches are bogged down with doing all the nitty gritties. They have become or being forced to become managers of a Church. I hope I shall not be trapped in this rut.
Many of my Church friends on hearing that I would be coming to serve at KUC, invariably asked me: Is it a full-time or part-time job? Which days you will be in your church office? What are your major duties? Are you the minister-in-charge? How much do they pay you? You see these Christian friends, heads of churches, local church pastors as well as seminary professors are still bound by their traditional thought pattern. Indeed those are the questions for all ministers who wish to serve in local churches; and also questions raised by council members of any local churches. I am heartened that your council members and trustees are not concerned with those questions. I hope I can continue to enjoy a high degree of “detached involvement”. For only with ample freedom will I be genuinely useful to KUC.
I am reminded oftentimes how Jesus maintained his sanity despite all the demands he faced day in and day out. Well, the secret was that whenever he was under great pressure, he would go up to the mountain (c.f. Mt. 4:1-11; 5:1ff; 15:29; 17:1; 24:3; 26;30 and 28:16, etc.). Symbolically, “mountain” is a place for the presence of God. For instance, the Psalmists wrote: “I look to the mountain; where will my help come from? My help will come from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 121:1-2). Hence God met the chosen on mountains. For example, Moses met Yahweh on Mount Horeb to receive the call, (Ex. 3:1); Yahweh gave the decalogue to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 20:1). Jesus went up to the mountains to maintain a close relationship with God.
Therefore, I should have more time and distance so that I can go up onto the mountains often. (My wife and I live in Sai Kung. There are plenty of mountains around). Another reason why we all need go to the mountain from time to time is because only then can we see things far away.
But alone I can achieve little. That is why I must turn to you for help. I need your trust and support and KUC needs your fuller participation.
John F. Kennedy, that youthful President of the United States of America in his inaugural address in January 1961 had said, “ask not what your country can give you; but ask what you can give to your country.” I am no JFK; but this is what I would like to implore each and everyone of you.
So our priority at KUC is to create a new vision. At this point, I must caution you against creating an inappropriate, inadequate or irrelevant vision. It is because sooner or later we will discover that such a vision is worse than no vision at all.
In facing mounting pressure at home, Napoleon Bonaparte launched the Mexican Campaign (1861-1867). Napoleon wanted to sell his vision “Glory aboard and prosperity at home” to the French people. As a result of this “glory aboard” vision, especially the extremely costly Mexican expedition, not only Napoleon’s Second Empire was toppled (in 1870) it took many years for France to recover.
We have another illustration in our doorsteps. In the early 1980s when Peking wanted to reclaim the sovereignty of Hong Kong and put the hearts of Hong Kong’s citizens at rest, Deng Xiaoping introduced “stability and prosperity” as the practical vision for Hong Kong. The business community hailed this as the far-sight of Deng. But to many of us who were concerned about human rights and freedom for the territory, we considered it a highly inadequate vision. For this vision would only benefit the rich and the powerful. Twenty years have gone by. Hong Kong has become more prosperous, but at the same time, its rich-poor gap has also greatly widened. Even the SAR government admitted recently that Hong Kong does have a severe poverty problem!
Where do we start in creating a more comprehensive and relevant vision for KUC?
Let us go back to Proverb 29:18. This time, I shall read it from the Bible we use, i.e. the Good News Bible or To-day’s English Version. It says, “A nation without God’s guidance is a nation without order.”
First, let us substitute the word “nation” with the word “church”. So it reads “a church without God’s guidance is a church without order.”
Second, the word “order” reminds me of the Exodus Event. In the Exodus Event, God brought the oppressed Israelites out of Egypt, the land of bondage. It has become our understanding of God’s locus of saving acts: from bondage to freedom; from meaninglessness life to a life of some meaning and purpose; from hopelessness to hope… from chaos to order. “Order” which indicates a state of wellness, harmony and wholeness indeed is God’s will. That is why after God has completed each epoch of creation, God considered that it was good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21 and 25). Indeed God’s created order was good. In fact according to the Hebrew thought, God’s creation was never out of nothing there came something, generally known as creatio ex nihilo. But rather it was from chaos to order. “When God began to create the heaven and the earth, the earth was without form and void” (Gen. 1:1). Furthermore, in the Old Testament, oftentimes “order” points to the right relationship between God and God’s creation, especially between God and all human beings. This was how the 6th Century B.C. prophet Jeremiah understood this order. God said,
“I will be your God
and you shall be my people”
(7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 31:1; 31:33; 32:38, etc.)
So this is God’s governance: Let KUC be God’s Church. In the first instance, KUC’s vision is not so much on the pole of doing: what shall we do; what is KUC’s mission? But rather our vision should be based on the deeper understanding of our being: that KUC is a church or ein kirche. The word “kirche” comes from the Greek word kuriakos which means that which belongs to God. Yes, KUC is not merely a human institution. KUC belongs to God. It is God’s Church. This we will further examine some time next year.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
“This Do In Remembrance Of Me"
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 5th November 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. Readings heard during the service were from Exodus 24:1-8, I Corinthians 11:23-26 and Mark 14:12-16.
To-day, as in every first Sunday of the month, we celebrate Holy Communion in this church.
The communion is holy because it is extra-ordinary. It is something which is separated from our daily ordinary life. It is a solemn ceremony. We must not take it lightly.
Every time we celebrate the holy communion, we are reminded that the Church is one. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. As the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation” says, “With His own blood He bought her (the church), and for her life He died”.
There is only one Christian Church throughout the world. Yet there are many expressions of the faith in Jesus Christ: from the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions on the right of the spectrum (these traditions are considered liturgically high churches) all the way to the left-wing (or people-oriented) churches. These are the Baptist, the Alliance and the Evangel churches. Then, of course there are the Pentecostal churches which are considered to be on the far left in terms of theology and worship life. Kowloon Union Church is in the middle of the spectrum. Together with all churches from the “Reformed” traditions, we highly treasure the Incarnate Word of Jesus Christ. The Lutheran and Reformed creed of sola gratia, sola fides and sola scriptura (or only grace, faith and scriptures) are based on the sola Christos (only Christ).
Whichever tradition, we Christians and Christian churches celebrate the Holy Communion on a regular basis. The Quakers or the Friends and the Salvation Army are the only exceptions. We all consider it as a holy sacrament. Simply put, a holy sacrament is God’s grace made visible to all humanity.
Since its inception in the first century, the holy communion has been the most important ritual for the Christian churches. Many conservative churches regard it so very important that they only celebrate it on special occasions. I know some Baptist Churches would only celebrate it once a quarter. But for the more liturgical churches, like the Roman Catholic churches or high Anglican churches, they would celebrate it weekly if not also daily. In fact, most of the Roman Catholic priests and sisters do attend mass every morning. For the Roman Catholics the holy communion or what they call the Eucharist is the highest point of their mass or worship service, which is preceded by the Introit liturgy and the liturgy of the Word.
Different traditions have different names for the holy communion. These different names do carry different meanings. The Roman Catholics for instance call it the Eucharist which comes from the Greek word eucharisto which literally means “I give thanks”. Indeed, for the Roman Catholics, Eucharist is a thanks-offering. It is rooted in the ancient Jewish laws as recorded in the Old Testament.
In Leviticus, in the ritual of sacrifice, for example, there are burnt offering (ch. 1), the cereal offering (ch. 2), the communion offering (ch. 3), the sacrifice of sin (ch. 4), the sacrifice of reparation (ch. 6) etc. In many of these rituals, a lamb is used as the oblate. Especially in the sacrifice of sin, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled in and around the tent where Yahweh symbolically resided. The symbol was clear. A lamb was sacrificed so that the two alienated parties, namely Yahweh and the people were once again united. This was an act of atonement. The word “atonement” is made up of at-one-ment.
In the “New Covenant”, Jesus often labeled as the lamb of God (JN 1:29, 36) was the oblate. Once and for all, Jesus sacrificed his life and his blood shed for the remission of the sins of all human beings.
So in the Eucharist, this act of sacrifice or this act of salvation of the humankind through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is enacted.
For the left-wing churches like the Baptists, they also from time to time include the Lord’s Supper (that is the term they use for holy communion) into their worship services. As the term indicates, their emphasis is on commemoration. In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they remember especially the night when Jesus was betrayed, he had supper with his disciples. They also remember what Jesus said, “this is my body” and “this is my blood” as Jesus’ anticipation of his own sacrifice. For two thousand years, this “Lord’s Supper” or “The Last Supper” has become a favourite theme for artists and painters throughout the world.
Since KUC is rooted in the Reformed tradition, we believe that through the celebration of the Holy Communion, we are in full communion with Jesus Christ. Or as Paul once said, “I have been crucified with Christ, and yet I am alive; it is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20). In participating in the holy communion, we become like Jesus!
Whichever the tradition, in celebrating the holy communion, we are reminded the fact that Christ suffered and died not only for us, but for the whole humankind. Moreover, whenever we partake in the communion, we acknowledge not only the human frailty, but also because of our human failure, our world is in calamity. But as a result of his sacrificial love, Jesus has overcome all the difficulties and made this seemingly impossible world possible (c.f. Jn 16:33). Therefore we dare to affirm despite all, God is still in charge. We dare to hope against hope.
According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ last supper with his disciples was a passover meal (c.f. Mf 26:17ff; Mk 14:12ff and Lk 22:7ff). It was not a co-incidence. It is precisely because the last supper was a passover meal, it has the overtone of God’s salvation. In the Exodus event, we learned that the angels of Yahweh leaped over the Israelite households who were marked with the blood of the slain lamb and spared the lives of their eldest sons (Ex 11). Hence the festival of the Passover was to commemorate God’s saving acts to God’s chosen.
Let us now go back to the oldest record of the institution of the Eucharist, namely, I Corinthians 11:22-26. The institution consists of Jesus’ three acts to be followed by a commandment.
The first act was that Jesus took bread and later similarly he took up the cup. What Jesus used in the institution of the Eucharist were very ordinary materials: unleavened bread and grape wine.
Bread is made up of wheat flour. Wheat is crushed so that flour is produced. Similarly, grapes are crushed so that wine or grape juice can come about. The simple fact is that sacrifice can and do bring about new things. Everyday, countless animals and plants lose their lives so that human beings have food to sustain their lives.
Many of us eat rice for our evening meal. Do you have any idea how many people are involved in preparing a bowl of hot rice for our use? There are farmers who have to toil in the fields under the hot sun or heavy rain for months. Then the transportation laborers, the retail shop-keepers… and finally the cook: at least a score of people participated. Think of the sweat they have shed in order that we can eat a bowl of rice.
I am the homemaker in our home. So I am responsible to prepare the evening meal. Our small kitchen is not air-conditioned. In the hot months, I have to work in that kitchen for two periods of at least 20 minutes each – one to wash and prepare and the other the actual cooking. Eventually, when I put the food on the table, I was still sweating. No pain, no gain. No sacrifice, the good things will never come about. Life is possible only when sacrifice takes place. Our life depends on so many people: our relatives, friends and colleagues, and we also depend on the many more we do not know personally – street cleaners, transportation workers, government officials, and entrepreneurs… Do we want to think of ways to live for them, to make their lives slightly better as well? Whenever sacrifice takes place, the ordinary becomes the extra-ordinary. New things can come about. “Unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and die, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” (Jn 12:24). How true!
The second act at the institution was that Jesus gave thanks. The act of thanksgiving from a thankful heart can often perform miracles. All of you are familiar with the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 (Mk 6:30-44; Mt 14:13-21; Lk 9:10-17 and Jn 6:1-13). After giving thanks, Jesus was able to use five loaves and two fish “to feed 5,000 men, to say nothing of women and children.”
The act of thanksgiving acknowledges the fact that in final analysis, we are not in charge. God is. As King David in one of his prayers of offering intoned, “Everything (which includes our own life) is a gift from God.” (I Chron 29:14) and what Jesus once told his disciples, “By human resources, it is impossible, but not for God: because for God everything is possible.” (Mk 10:27).
One of the greatest educations of the last century was Helen Keller. Surprisingly, Helen could not see, hear nor speak. The world marveled at what she accomplished despite all her disabilities. In her autobiography, she wrote (and I paraphrase), “I thank God for giving me these disabilities; and thank God also for giving me strength and courage to overcome them and thus was able to see the beautiful world God has created.” A thankful heart can indeed bring about miracles.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, once the priest has finished saying the great prayer of thanksgiving in the Eucharist liturgy, the bread and the wine will be changed into the body and the blood of Christ respectively. Transubstantiation is not only a matter of doctrine, but a life reality as well.
The third act Jesus did after he gave thanks to God was that he broke the bread and shared with his disciples. Likewise Jesus shared the cup. This act of sharing is another component for miracles. It is generally accepted that the worst global problem today is POVERTY. There are many causes: overpopulation, desertification, deforestration… etc; simply put, lack of resources to sustain about 6 billion people. However, Robert McNamara, the President of the World Bank in the 1970s told us that the root problem for poverty was not because there was not enough resources on earth, but it was because the rich nations did not want to share their abundance.
To-day, the poverty problem has become more acute, much worse than 30 years ago. Generally speaking, human beings, Christians included, are too self-centred and self-seeking. Fortunately, a couple of candles have been lit recently. Bill and Melinda Gates together with Warren Buffet have decided to donate a good part of their fortune to combat this problem. Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush have joined hands to invite wealthy people throughout the world to do likewise.
Many Christians come to participate in the communion service if not any other service. Their intention is to get something from the communion: it may be for spiritual edifice or for the remission of their sins… But holy communion is not about receiving. It is about sacrifice, thanksgiving and sharing. By the way, these three are essential elements for an enriched life. So when we come to communion service, our lives are transformed: we become like Jesus. This is the meaning of Jesus’ commandment, “This Do in Remembrance of Me”. When we partake in the holy communion, we remember what Jesus did, not only for us, but for the entire humankind. In this solemn commemoration, we too must be like Jesus: to live a scarified life. Always remember these words of Jesus, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him/her renounce himself/herself and take up his/her cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:34)
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