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.