A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 8th July 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Jeremiah 29:1-9, Leviticus 19:33-34 and Matthew 22:34-40.
Last Sunday, a great many churches in Hong Kong disrespect their confessional backgrounds celebrated Hong Kong Sunday. About a decade ago, the Hong Kong Christian Council advocated that on the first Sunday in July, churches in Hong Kong should especially pray for Hong Kong. Why the first Sunday in July? It is because on the first of July 1997, Hong Kong went back to China. In other words, since July 1, 1997, Hong Kong ceased to be a British Crown Colony, rejoined China and became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
But there is another reason why we should uplift such an idea of Hong Kong Sunday. Hong Kong is our home either temporary or permanently. Hong Kong is where we belong. We should be concerned about its future, and try our best to contribute to the welfare of its 6.9 million citizens.
That was the simple and clear message of Prophet Jeremiah to the exiled Jews in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C.E.
In the year 586 before Christ, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar’s Kingdom of Babylon. Hundreds and thousands of Jews were taken to Babylon. Naturally, most of the Jews considered their stay in this foreign land was temporary. Sooner or later they would return to their homeland. So they just prayed day and night for an early return.
But Prophet Jeremiah held a very different view-point. He thought the Jews in exile should take their place in Babylon seriously. He therefore admonished them to build houses and settle down. Plant garden and eat what they grow in them. They should get married and have children. Let their children get married, so that they also may have children. They must increase and not decrease. They should work for the good of the cities where God has made them go as prisoners. Pray to God on their cities’ behalf… .
What did we notice in these words by Jeremiah which were actually the Word of God? First of all, Jeremiah gave the Jews an alternative point of view. In any society, an alternative view is always vital. Without an alternative voice, societies, churches included, would be a great deal poorer. There would hardly be any meaningful progress!
Secondly, Jeremiah’s view-point was very practical. Work and pray for the city where you are; for only if that city is prosperous will you be prosperous as well.
Thirdly, Jeremiah asked the Jews in Babylon to pray to God on behalf of the cities in Babylon. Prayers and especially intercessory prayers are not just wishful thinking. Prayers and our decisions for action go hand in hand. Jeremiah asked the Jews pray for the cities in Babylon. He also asked them to work hard as well. The quotation I just read consists of 12 verbs, “build houses… all the way to work for the welfare of the cities.”
Of course, there is a fourth point which I called a theological point. The Jews were brought to Babylon as prisoners. The situation they were put into was far from ideal. They were treated as slaves. Lives were tough. But Jeremiah considered the situation they were placed under nevertheless were God-given situations. So they should take them seriously. This by far is the most difficult point for us to understand. We always ask God to grant us smooth sailing. (God knows what smooth sailing means to us). Whenever we encounter difficult situations, we try to escape, rather than to face them and to make the best out of them.
But what Jeremiah implied in his teaching was that when we honour God we have to accept whatever God gives us. In faith we must accept all situations are God-given. God so loves each and everyone of us that He always has a plan for us, though oftentimes, we only realize this in retrospect.
Hong Kong is our city. It was not easy to reach the state we are in - superficially rather stable and affluent. Let us not forget that tens of millions of people, Chinese and non-Chinese, entrepreneurs and labourers have all contributed to the seeming success of Hong Kong.
Only slightly more than a century and a half ago, Hong Kong was no more than a few fishing villages. There were scarce vegetation. The British foreign minister. Lord Palmerston had this to say when he gave his report to the British Parliament in the early 1840s, “Hong Kong was a barren rock, with hardly a house built on it.”
Indeed only when the British seized Hong Kong Island in 1841, did Hong Kong gradually become an entreport. Europeans came to Hong Kong and used Hong Kong as a base to trade with China. Increasingly many people from the mainland came to Hong Kong to find work. Jobs were plenty for those who knew English. However, few would consider Hong Kong as their home. This was the story of my father. My father came to Hong Kong to look for a job in 1918 when he was barely 19 years old. Despite the fact that he soon got married to my mother who was born in Hong Kong and bore three children, his ultimate life goal was to work hard, earned some money, raised the family and then went back to Guangzhou where he considered as his home until the day he died. Like my father, most people who came to Hong Kong from the mainland considered Hong Kong was only transient.
Another typical case was our in-laws. They came to Hong Kong in the 1950s to escape the communist rule. Their goal was never set in Hong Kong, but rather to use Hong Kong as a stepping-stone in order to migrate to the U.S.A. Their dream came true in the early 1970s. Again, this was also the dream of hundreds and thousands of Chinese refugees in the 1960s and Hong Kong residents in the 1980s and 1990s.
What I wanted to say is that very few people in Hong Kong considered Hong Kong as their home. The 1967 riots which lasted for six months uncovered the fact that the people in Hong Kong lacked a sense of belonging and identity.
On the whole this picture did not change much until 2003. On July 1 that year, more than half-a-million people took to the streets. They called for the resignation of C.H. Tung, the chief Executive because he failed to respond to the needs of the city. But in later analysis, it was discovered that many of the 500,000 demonstrators considered Hong Kong as their home. They cared about its future which was their future as well. That was why they took to the streets in a hot and humid day. This was an important step for Hong Kong.
Compared with the other three little dragons in Asia, viz. South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, Hong Kong has done remarkably well economically. But the people of Hong Kong had to pay a very dear price for it. They worked extremely hard, but the only goal was to make money, lots of money. Practically all of them have adopted “the everybody for themselves” mindset. They have forgotten what the Bible says, “a person’s true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be.” (Lk 12:15).
Compared with S. Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, the sense of “neighbourheed” is relatively weak in Hong Kong. For instance, the society in Hong Kong is highly discrimatory. Recently, a report came out indicating that about 200,000 people in Hong Kong with full-time employment earn $4,000 or less a month. There are many reasons for it. One is due to the fact that Hong Kong only respects the wealthy and the powerful, but does not care about those who are less fortunate.
On the whole, the people in Hong Kong are narrow-minded and exclusive. Look at the way they treat pregnant women from the mainland to-day and the way they supported the Hong Kong government by preventing children, husbands and wives who wished to join their immediate family members in Hong Kong back in 1999. Look at the way how Hong Kong welcomes mainlanders to come to visit and spend money but still see them as “backward” people…
Let us reflect on the second Biblical passage we read from Levities this morning. It was taken from the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26). It says, “Do not ill treat foreigners who are living in our land. Treat them as you would as fellow Israelites. Love them as ourselves.” Can we do that?
We are commanded to treat foreigners well for two reasons: First, because at one time we ourselves were foreigners. Practically all the people in Hong Kong are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. In the Pre-war years, many mainlanders came to Hong Kong to look for jobs. In the 1950s and 60s, many came as refugees. In the 80s and 90s, many came to seek for better living conditions. To-day there are more than a quarter of a million overseas workers, all making significant contributions for the betterment of the city. Yet for those of us who have obtained permanent resident status, we treat all new comers as our adversaries. They can come and work for us; but they should not enjoy hospital care, free education, public housing and assistance, etc. as we do. We forget totally we were once in their shoes. This is wrong!
The second reason why we should treat foreigners well is even more crucial. It is a theological reason. We all believe that the Lord is our God. In context, we should understand that God is not only our own God, but God is the God of all human beings. It implies that we are all God’s children. As such we are obliged to treat others, especially the “foreigners” – i.e. all those who are excluded by the Hong Kong society, in the same way as we treat ourselves.
“Treat foreigners as yourselves.” This demand comes from God who is Holy. (This is why the whole Jewish ethical code as recorded in Leviticus 17-26 is titled the Holiness Code). The Holiness Code affirms that God is holy. God is not human like us. But it says also we are not God, though ultimately we are linked to God.
As we are linked to God, we are linked to other people as well, for all people bear the image of God. The Biblical term for this kind of human relationship is: we are all neighbours to one another. As such it is duty-bound that we care for each other. So neighbours are much more than the subjects which require our assistance. Ontologically, all people on this planet earth are our neighbours. We are also their neighbours as well.
When asked by the Pharisees what is the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it, Love your neighbour as yourself. The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40).
For reasons we may not fully comprehend, God has placed us in Hong Kong in this particular span of our life. In order to honour God and what God has given us, we must seriously try to use whatever we have to make Hong Kong a better place. One of the things we must and can do is to generate a sense of neighbourhood among the people we encounter.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we give you thanks for Hong Kong. We thank you for the many wonderful gifts you have bestowed upon its 6.9 million citizens. Help us to be mindful that not all the people in Hong Kong enjoy the fruits of their labours. Forgive us that we do not treat one other as neighbours. Instill in our hearts a keen sense of justice and charity. In Christ name we pray, Amen.
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