Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
Transformation by Fire
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 26th August 2007 by Ms. Rose Chue. The scripture readings that day were Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6 and Luke 13:10-17.
A journey, a quest. A quest to defeat evil and to have your innermost desires fulfilled. This is basically the story of the Wizard of Oz . I used this children’s story as a starter because it is a popular drama in Hong Kong schools at present and the words and music have been running in my head for the last year. And when I looked at the Bible readings for today somehow the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City became interwoven with Jeremiah and the Psalms.
Five characters on their way along the Yellow Brick Road to the great city of Oz, to see the terrible Wizard. Five characters who all had a special desire. Dorothy at last had realized the worth of home and wanted to go back to her Aunty Em, back to the security of a strict but loving home. The Scarecrow wanted a brain; the Tin Man wanted a heart and the Lion wanted courage. And don’t forget Toto. Toto just wanted to be with Dorothy. With which character do you identify?
The Jeremiah reading seems to link with the Lion – “I don’t know how to speak. I am too young.” I don’t know how to speak. I haven’t had the training. I don’t know how to speak. I haven’t studied the books. Throughout the Bible this scene is repeated. Moses said,” I am nobody. What can I tell them? What shall I do? I am a poor speaker. Please send someone else.” Barak, the warrior leader of 10,000 men told Deborah, “ I will go if you go with me, but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go either.” Gideon told the lord, “ How can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh and I am the least important member of my family. Give me proof.” How many lions do we have in this congregation?
The Tin Man could not feel because he was not given a heart. Yet it was because he once had a heart that he became the Tin Man. He had loved, but none too wisely as he had offended the Wicked Witch of the East. After he became the Tin Man he was further frightened of having any emotions as emotions, whether of sorrow or joy, could produce tears and tears would cause rusting. Yet the Christian message is based on love and love in action. The love that can be felt in pain as well as in everlasting joy. The centre of our faith is these words of Jesus, “For God so loved the world so much that He gave His only Son. So that everyone who believes in him should not die but have eternal life.”
For my part I am the Scarecrow. It’s not because I feel I am lacking a brain but that too often I get so tired of crows and flying monkeys - the students, the colleagues, the demands of the public examinations and the edicts of the Education Department - that pull the straw from me and I dread the fire that char my dried grass. Yet Jesus gave and gave again for us, for me. It was for me that he prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane – “I pray … for those who believe in me because of their message. I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.” I stand here this morning because of God’s love, because of Christ’s atonement, because of the many thousands who throughout history have built up the Kingdom of God, because of the many today in many countries who hold me in loving prayer.
But there is one further point I would like to make about the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow. A lion is a lion. By its very nature, its reputation, its image – fear is cast on all who behold it. If a lion walks into this hall, it doesn’t matter whether it has courage or not. We won’t have the courage to find out! Likewise for the Tin Man’s problem. Tin does not rust. It is iron that rusts. However emotional the Tin Man feels, however fiercely the storm may rage, there will be no rust. A Tin Man, by the nature of tin, does not rust. And I the scarecrow – whatever stuffing is pulled out of me, more can be stuffed back.
Why then are we afraid? Why do we feel we are lacking in something? Why do we say we are incomplete? By the word of God we are complete.
Listen to what is written –
Then the Lord stretched out His hand, touched my lips, and said to me, “Listen, I am, giving you the words you must speak. Today I give you authority over nations and kingdoms to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
But there is another kind of fear, the fear developed through experience. Psalm 71: 1-6 is an old man’s prayer – we who are the senior citizens you might say of heaven.
During the summer holidays I went to stay with my niece and her young daughter. I am the youngest of my immediate family, the number seven child, and so had been the designated baby sitter and child minder from the age of six. I remember the times when I used to toss my nephews and nieces up in the air or swing them around by one foot and by arm like the mechanical rides in Ocean Park. But now I don’t even dare to hold my little great niece. Why ? I have learnt about the fragility of young children’s bones and how one little trauma can affect a life. I used to have a colleague who was terrified of butterflies because as a toddler she had been teased by her brothers.
I have seen too much of the power of cruel and wicked men and now all I want is a secure shelter and a strong fortress. I have done my share of fighting and I just want to rest. I want to stay on the boat our pastor talked about last week, I do not wish to step onto the water, not even for Jesus.
I remember the enthusiasm and the surety of my early days. There were the times in industrial Newcastle in England, going from door to door with gospel tracts, or traveling alone across Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. There were the times on the first Mission station to which I was sent. The station included not just the school but the only United Church theological college and so when I was called to preach – which was often at the last minute – there were the rows of solemn earnest theological students and lecturers at the back and I could see all those minds working overtime analyzing what I was saying. In those days I was so comfortable in myself I would just go in with the Bible readings and say, ‘OK, Lord, over to you.’ And now I am afraid.
We know that we have placed restraints on ourselves. How do we break free? In the Gospel reading Jesus cured a woman, an instant release of her affliction, and answered his critics with these words – “Now here is this descendant of Abraham whom Satan has kept bound up for eighteen years; should she not be released on the Sabbath?”
Are we not descendants of Abraham also? We are more than descendants of Abraham. We are the children of God, we are princes, we are the stars in the sky. Should we not be released from our fears and stand upright? Phyllis Wong spoke to us about transformation by faith and with that faith we could, as our pastor urged us last week, be prepared to leave the security of our comfort zone and follow Christ.
The last reading set for today is from Hebrews 12.
“You have not come, as this people of Israel came, to what you can feel, to Mount Sinai with its blazing fire, the darkness and the gloom, the storm, the blast of a trumpet, and the sound of a voice. When the people heard the voice, they begged not to hear another word, because they could not bear the order which said, ”If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death!” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘ I am trembling and afraid!’”
That is the Emerald city, that is the Wizard of Oz. That is the smoke and all the lights. That is where we feel that unless we fulfil our tasks we will not be made whole.
The Hebrews passage goes on to say,
Instead, you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, with its thousands of angels. You have come to the joyful gathering of God’s first-born sons, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, who is the judge of all mankind, and to the spirits of good people made perfect. You have come to Jesus, who arranged the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that promises much better things than does the blood of Abel.
I read recently a review of a collection of the Mother’s letters. We all know the work started in Calcutta – Christians of whatever denominations can point to her as a person of great faith and courage. No Lion, no scarecrow, no Tin Man was she – or so it seems. Yet this is what she wrote – “I call, I cling, I want – and there is no one to answer – no one on whom I can cling – no, not one – alone – where is my faith – even deep down right in there there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.”
Nothing but emptiness and darkness. This from Mother Therese, a woman of God respected and venerated all over the world for the work she did in the name of Jesus.
She goes on - “I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the call of the sacred heart?”
And again – “ I utter words of community prayers – and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give – but my prayer of union is not there any longer – I no longer pray.”
For fifty years Mother Therese lived without sensing the presence of God in her life and yet she carried on with what she believed was the work appointed for her to do. That is true faith. That is the faith that enables us to leave our comfort zone and to go out into the world.
The last part of the Hebrews readings is this -
“Let us be thankful then, because we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let us be grateful and worship God in a way that will please him, with reverence and awe; because our God is indeed a destroying fire.”
Our pew Bibles have the translation ‘destroying.’ I am not a Greek or Hebrew scholar but to me a better word is ‘consuming’ which is found in other translations. Destroying seems to imply ending in nothing; consuming is a process from which another product may emerge. We are to go up to Mount Zion to receive this kingdom. During this we indeed will be consumed but we will be transformed into that joyful gathering, into the presence of God, into the presence of Jesus.
I am at the age when friends and relatives die. Death has been on my mind recently and I was interested to find out that a recent option for disposing of a dead body is to consign it to great heat and pressure for many days. At the end of that process a normal adult body would produce 200 diamonds. 200 diamonds. Mother Therese, in spite of all her agony of soul, has given the world brilliant diamonds. Are we prepared to go to Mount Zion and be consumed by the fire of God and out of the ashes, diamonds will sparkle?
Jesus Walks On Water With Peter
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 19th August 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 49:1-6 and Matthew 14:22-33.
Jesus walked on water. This was recorded by both Matthew and Mark. Mark’s was a shorter account; while Matthew included Peter’s encounter with Jesus. Water represents Nature. On the one hand, water is vital to all kinds of life and vegetations. More than 70% of the surface of this planet earth is made up of water. Likewise our human body.
Everywhere is water in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is surrounded by water. It has 235 islands. Many types of water sports are popular in Hong Kong. In the history of Hong Kong, there has been only one gold medalist, Li Lai Shan. She is a wind-surfer. Hong Kong is not very good in canoeing, sailing and boating. But it is famous world-wide in its international dragon boat competition every year in and around Tuen Ng or May 5th Festival. Swimming is probably the most common and healthiest exercise for grown-ups in Hong Kong. I took up swimming more than 20 years ago. When in town I go swimming 5 to 6 times a week. It keeps me fit and healthy. I would like to recommend it to each and everyone of you. While swimming for that half-an-hour each day, I do meditation, contemplation and prayer as well.
KUC has a tradition for several years of spending a whole day on a boat at sea. It is a big event for the church. I notice “Go to sea with KUC” in 2007 has been advertized on our Sunday bulletin every week since April 22!
In the summer months water is especially precious to us. We may suffer from dehydration if we do not drink enough water while we are in the outdoors. As a matter of fact, people can live for days and perhaps weeks without food. But without water people can last for only a couple of days. Water is extremely important to us. But oftentimes we take it for granted. For those of us who are old enough, we went through tough days in the mid-1960s in the territory when we had only four hours of water supply every fourth day. Even to-day, a tenth of the world’s population do not have clean water!
Water also has the cleansing effect. As a homemaker, I use quite a lot of water to wash vegetables, in cooking and after a meal, the dishes… Hong Kong people like to take a bath or a shower daily. Water has the cleansing effect and was treasured in practically all the living faiths.
Jesus was baptised in River Jordan by John the Baptist. Massive mass of water can be very powerful. It can generate electricity. But it can be very dangerous and destructive too! We still remember very vividly the tsunami which hit Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka on boxing day of 2004. More than 230,000 people lost their lives. It was equally horrid when typhoon Katrina hit the coastline of Louisiana and Mississippi two years ago. Almost the whole city of New Orleans was wiped out.
Coming back to the miracle story we read from Matthew this morning, the setting was in the Sea of Galilee. Earlier on, Jesus was on land to serve the people in all kinds of need. Then he alone went on a hill nearby to pray while his disciples went to a boat to rest.
First of all, there is theological meaning to all this. Land is where people are. People with different kinds of needs came to Jesus to be satisfied. Land is the mission field for Jesus. Hill is where God meets people. God commissioned Moses at Mount Horeb in Sinai (Ex 3); gave Moses and Aaron the Ten Commandments in Mount Sinai (Ex 19-20). Jesus often spent time on mountains or hills to pray and to be with God. Boat is a place for rest; and sea is where the struggle with the devil takes place (hence the story of the demoniacs in Gardora as recorded in Mt. 8:28-34// Mk 5:1-20// Lk 8:26-29). Also sea is where people struggle with their faith and unfaith.
Jesus walked to the boat on water. The gospel writers took pain to illustrate that Jesus had the power over nature. That explains why all the Synoptic Gospels also included the calming of a storm by Jesus in their respective gospel (Mk 4:35-41// Mt 8:23-27// Lk 8:22-25). Jesus was able to have this power because he was constantly in full communion with God (c.f. Jn 5).
When Jesus’ disciples saw Jesus walking on the water they were terrified. “It is a ghost, they said and screamed with fear.”
Jesus’ spoke to them at once, “courage, it is me; do not be afraid”.
Peter, the spokesman for Jesus’ disciples then said, “Lord if it really is you, order me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus said, “Come”.
So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and tried to come to Jesus. But when he saw the strong wind, Peter was afraid and beginning to sink. He cried out “Lord, Save me!”.
Here is Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple. In a way, he had faith in Jesus. He believed if Jesus could walk on the water, so could he. Yet Peter’s faith was not sufficient. Peter was afraid when he decided to follow Jesus for real, and not just believing in Jesus in his mind.
When Peter was about to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me”. Fortunately in the moment of utter danger, Peter believed that only Jesus could save him.
“Lord, save me” – this was one of the earliest confessions or faith statements of the Christian Church. Jesus is our Lord and Saviour.
When Jesus saw Peter sinking, he immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter. Then Jesus said, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus’ action was always prior to his teaching. Despite Peter’s relatively insufficient faith in Jesus, Jesus was always willing to help.
We claim that we are Jesus’ faithful disciples. Yet we have to humbly confess that like Peter our faith is insufficient. Therefore, “Lord, save me” should not only be our faith statement; but also it should be our daily prayer as well. Despite our little faith Jesus is always here to sustain us.
Finally, Jesus and Peter got onto the boat. When the other disciples saw this, their faith was increased, they worshipped Jesus, by saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Jesus’ disciples originally were resting comfortably on a boat. In the ecumenical movement, the boat is the symbol of the Church.
First of all, a boat is built to sail in the open sea rather than to remain in the harbour. A good and sturdy boat should be able to take on any weather conditions, stormy weather included. Likewise, it is with the Christian Church. The Church must dare to go into the world despite this world is full of wars and violence, human miseries and suffering. So Kowloon Union Church must get itself involved in the whole social process in Hong Kong and beyond. We must do our part to improve the welfare of the common lot.
Secondly, in the event of strong wind and stormy weather, people would rather stay inside a boat. It is more safe. Similarly, many of us would choose to remain in the quiet and comfortable church, enjoy the cosy and friendly atmosphere rather than to step outside and face the harsh world – the world full of animosity and deceit; cut-throat competition and all kinds of evil.
In the summer of 1970, I passed through Calcutta reroute Europe. I decided to stay in Calcutta for two days. I wanted especially to visit the world-famous homes for the dying and the destitute operated by the Little Sisters started by Mother Teresa. Calcutta was hot and everywhere was full of villagers who flooded to this big city to find a living. One early morning, I took a walk nearby my hotel. It was rather quiet with few passers-by. But here and there I found people lying on the side walks and the ditches. Soon I realized that many of them had already died. I felt so nauseating that I decided to go back to the hotel and hide in my air conditioned room. I did not want to face these horrid scenes, much less to think of a way how I might be of some help.
We all have our own shelters which we feel secure and safe. Perhaps the Church is one of the best shelters in the world. But just to stay inside the church is far from adequate. God calls us to be members of his Church; only for the purpose of sending us out to the real world to serve and to care.
This is the core of the Biblical message. God called Abraham so that he would leave his comfortable home and be a blessing to the whole world. God called the people of Israel to be His servants to bring justice and be a light to all the nations. This is what the Old Testament lesson for this morning all about.
Peter, perhaps out of curiosity, wanted to step outside the boat and like Jesus to do the impossible, that is, to walk on the water.
Kelly Lim lost both of her legs and right arm when she was a little girl. Most of the people in her condition would feel sorry and be cared for by professionals, volunteers and relatives the rest of their life. But not for Kelly. Just five months after the amputation, she returned to school. Now she is a pediatrician at the Medical Centre of University of California in Los Angeles.
The reason for Kelly’s success is that she dared to step outside her little world and meet all sorts of challengers and overcome all kinds of difficulties. Because of her decision to step outside her small world, Kelly is not only able to see but also do the extra-ordinary.
Our Lord Jesus Christ beckons us to come: Come out from our small boat we are so accustomed to and be liberated from our besieged mindset filled with preconceived ideas, greed, hatred, insecurity and unfaith. I call all this the boat of impossibility.
Let us dare to answer Jesus’ call to come out and really live in God’s world – to enjoy God’s creation of our fellow human beings and the beautiful environment which surrounds us. Only then, can we begin to experience the abundant life which Jesus has promised to all of us.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, open our minds so that we can see the beauty of your creation; open our hearts so that we can accept the people we encounter as our brothers and sisters. In Christ’s name, Amen.
The Transformation Power Of Faith
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 12th August 2007 by Ms Phyllis Wong Mei Fung. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:1-5; Hebrew 11:1-3 and Luke 8:43-48.
Faith, hope and love are the three core Christian values. Today, I would like to share with you the value and essence of faith.
Let me begin by sharing a story. A tourist went for a tour to the Grand Canyon. He fell down the cliff by accident. He struggled very hard and eventually he was able to grasp a branch of a tree and hanged on in the middle of the cliff. At this dangerous moment, he managed to keep calm and shouted for help: “is anyone up there to help me?” Immediately there was a voice answering him. “I am here to help you. I am God.” The man was very pleased and asked God to rescue him. God said to the man, “do you believe in me” The man said: “of course, I go to church every Sunday and read scripture and pray everyday. I am very supportive to many of the church activities too”. God then said, “if you truly believe in me, release your hand from the branch that you are holding now.” The man was very hesitant and asked if there was any alternative. God once again asked the man to get his hand off the branch before He saves him. After a minute of silence, the man shouted again, “is anyone up there to help?”
How would you respond to the man’s reaction and God’s way of salvation? If you were the man, what would you do? While some of us may laugh at this man and how little faith he has on God, or thinking that God is giving the man too harsh of a test, let us think and reflect on the subject of ‘faith’.
This morning when we read the letter of the Hebrews 11:1, it says “faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen.” Faith is a matter of trust to God. It is essential but not sufficient. Faith is more than trust and believes. As the theologian John Hick points out, “faith offers us a new understanding of the world. Faith is also about interpretation (or reinterpretation) of our ongoing experiences”.
When we face tremendous troubles and uncertainties in our lives and the world, have you ever thought that our faith in terms of a new understanding of ourselves, the world and God, can help to transform our lives? Let us go to the story in Luke 8:43-48. It is a story about a woman suffering from discharge of blood/haemorrhage, and her encounter with Jesus. At the end of the story, Jesus assured the woman, “daughter, your faith has saved you, go in peace.” (Luke 8:48) How does this story inspire us about faith? What can we learn and reflect from her encounter with Jesus?
With reference to the religious and cultural tradition in ancient Israel society, discharge of blood (haemorrhage) during or apart from menstruation is impure, and impurity is a sin. It is because in their religious understanding by that time, discharge of blood belongs to the sphere of death and impurity, it is in contrast to living blood. Living blood is the gift of God and carrier of life (Leviticus 17:11).
For the ancient Israelites, they tried to uphold God’s law and human traditions of preserving life. They then determined with utmost seriousness the extent and degree of impurification that had already taken place.
Impurity is regarded as contagious. The discharge of blood (haemorrhage) in women was discussed in Leviticus 15:25-30. Discharge of blood for a woman was ritually impure. In Leviticus, it listed the objects and people became impure through contact with any woman with haemorrhage. Lastly, it described the offering to be made upon recovery. In Leviticus 15:31, valid for all the cases described the impure person must be kept separated, and any contact of the sanctuary for this woman was strongly prohibited. Therefore, the impure person had to be segregated from the community and even from God.
With an understanding of such religious and cultural background, it was obvious that the woman suffering from discharge of blood was miserable. Not only because she spent all her money for medical treatment in vain, but also her religious impurity drove her to isolation, she was separated from God, and from other people. The woman not only suffered physical illness, but also psychosocial sickness of isolation, segregation and rejection by her community.
The woman presented to us that she had a strong intention to restore life. She dared to break through the religious taboo and regulations; she went out to the public and secretly touched the clothes of Jesus. She tried all her efforts to live and cheat death, at least not passively waiting to die. More importantly, the woman tried to define her life on her own by taking proactive actions and refused to act according to the traditional rules that were discriminative and destructive to her life. Through the courageous act of the woman, we can see the creative power of life rooted in her, instead of the passive destructive power of death. The affirmation of life by this woman is fundamental to her faith.
The woman with haemorrhage reminds us when we are in great trouble and have been leading a miserable life for long time without much signs of improvement, we should not give up. Life is a gift of God. Fear not and to choose life is the will of God. As said in the Deut 30:19, God said “I called heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendents may live.” Through the Words of God, our Lord not only gave promise to ancestor of Abraham, God is also speaking to us today.
I guess most of you heard about Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa who was imprisoned for 27 years for his struggles against apartheid. It was the conviction of Nelson Mandela and his people who affirm the rights and freedom of black people as equal, after almost three decades of struggle they finally succeeded in bringing an end to apartheid. For the sake of bringing peace of life to the people and overcome the multi-racial conflicts in South Africa, Nelson Mandela switched to a policy of reconciliation following his release from prison in 1990. To lead a life in full is also a promise of God to his people. Jesus has also said in the Gospel of John (John 10:10), I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. May our living God be our basis of faith, source of strength and hope.
Let us go back to the narrative again. This time I want to focus on the woman’s touching the fringe of Jesus’ clothes from behind and immediately her discharge of blood stopped. (Luke 8:44) The touching of Jesus’ clothes and the cure of the woman, to many people is a miracle and a demonstration of God’s healing power. When we look into this incidence in the context of the religious background of Jewish history, we will be inspired of the deeper theological meaning. Jesus wore his garment with the fringe as demanded by Moses who proclaimed the laws to the people that he received from God. In Number 15:37-39, I quoted in brief, ‘the Lord commanded Moses to the people of Israel to make fringes on the corners of their garments and put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. The fringe served as reminders of God’s commands and Israelites should obey them. The people of Israel would not then turn away from God and followed their own wishes and desires. The fringes were taken as reminder for Israelites that they belonged to God.’
The touching on the fringe of Jesus’ clothes from behind by the woman conveys two messages to us. Firstly, the woman although being segregated by the religious law from God and rejected by the community, she had the intention to be in touch with God and follow the commands of God. When the healing power flowed from Jesus, it indicated clearly that Jesus as the representation of God was receptive to this woman. Not only did he allow her to touch him, but also released the power of healing to her. The touching of the fringe symbolized the reconnection between the woman and God. She was not left alone anymore. She was valued in the eyes of God. She was the people of God. Secondly, the biblical scholar Francois Bovon gives us an insight that the woman who touched the fringe of Jesus clothes from behind, symbolize that she did not go after her sinful thoughts, but after the commands of God. (Number 15:37-39). The woman represents not only a model of faith, but the new obedience. From then on, the woman was no longer controlled by the sins. Maybe I should share a bit about the understanding of sin here, I would adopt the definition of contemporary theologian Paul Tillich’s understanding, sin is alienation of oneself with God, oneself with other people and with his/her own self. In the case of this woman, as mentioned she was segregated from the other people and God. When a person for a long time is regarded as nobody and is rejected, from a psychological point of view, it is easy for her to develop a very low self-image and self-esteem. Consciously and unconsciously that person rejects herself as a unique and worthy person. Because of this, they may isolate themselves for they fear that other people may not accept them. In my experience of working with women suffering from domestic violence, who have been abused for a long time by their husbands, they do always have a very low self-confidence.
Reconnection with God is another significant basis of faith that brings the power of transformation to us. The woman who represents the impure and the marginalized people are unconditionally accepted by Jesus. They are no longer segregated from God, but are being reconnected to God. Jesus Christ, as representative of God, manifests the divine’s compassion to the people who are being stigmatized and oppressed. Jesus has liberated the oppressed for friendship and solidarity. Our Lord is a triune God who is a God of relationship. God takes very seriously the relationship with anyone of us as we are the children of God, we are God’s people.
Working in the field of social service for over ten years and providing pastoral care in recent years, I have many opportunities to share with different people of their struggles. It was heart breaking to hear many of the suffering and pain induced by social discrimination and exclusion. In some occasion, tears could not help rolling across my face. At some other time, my heart was touched by people’s courage to resist and overcome difficulties. Admitting and sharing of one’s problem and pain does require much courage. It is God’s blessing and grace for any opportunity that given to share with people their sorrow and hard time in their lives. Whenever there are sharing go in depth with sincerity and acceptance, I felt strongly God’s presence of his compassion and love. It seems to me Jesus Christ who is the wounded healer is right there in our heart. Those who are willing to share somehow are breaking out of the isolation and segregation. The opportunity to talk and share, to gain support and comfort is a blessing of God to them. The moment of sharing of pain is a holy moment for people’s connection with God and with each other. As human beings are created with the holy image of God, we are unconditionally accepted no matter who we are and what we do. No one or any system and tradition can take away our rights to love ourselves, to connect with people and God.
From the scripture we read today, the Word of God help us to reflect once again on the subject of faith. Faith is a radical attitude towards life. It is about change and transformation in life.
We choose to hope and act that something happening to us is far beyond our own imagination. Sometime, our faith requires us a never giving up spirit with courage, while in some time, faith call for giving up control over our future and letting go God defines our life. It is a living with conviction that God molds us in love, holds us in tenderness, and moves us away from the sources of our fear.
As said in Psalm 33:5, our God loves justice. His faithful love fills the earth. No matter how tough our condition seems to be, we trust that God is right here with us. Our God never leave us alone because God is full of compassion.
Today, we have seen how the woman with haemorrhage is saved by her faith, and how is her life being transformed by faith with the grace of God. For you, do you have any areas that require changes and or transformation? Will you engage yourself to experience the transformation power of faith in the love of God?
“The Qualifications for Heaven”
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 5th August 2007 by Ms. Jelita Gardner-Rush. The scripture readings that day were Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11 and Luke 12: 13-21.
It’s a great privilege to have this opportunity to reflect on God’s Word to us with you today. I have been sharing in worship with you for more than 2 years now. For some people that will sound like a long time. In a place like Hong Kong that moves so quickly and has many transient residents, 2 years can be a long time. But for many of you it will seem as though I arrived here yesterday. For our congregation is blessed both with visitors and with many people who have a long commitment to this church and its mission. As I say, I am privileged to share this time of reflection with you and I have been privileged to call this church home since I came to Hong Kong.
Many of you will know that I am a lawyer by profession. One of the first phrases I learnt in Cantonese was “Ngoh hai leuht si”. And “Wo shi lu shi” was in my first Mandarin lesson a few months ago. In Hong Kong, everyone asks what you do for a living. This is a highly industrious city. Many more women especially engage in full time work out of the home than would be the case in Australia. And I always feel that my answer to the question about work has some impact on the way people are going to behave towards me.
Before I came to Hong Kong, I was also a lawyer in Australia. I expect only a few of you know how a person who is a lawyer in one country, becomes a lawyer in another country. As you know, the laws of Australia and Hong Kong are not the same. How is it that, as an Australian, I can be a lawyer in Hong Kong? The answer is that I had to re-qualify. To gain admission as a foreign lawyer in Hong Kong, I was required to sit 4 very hard and very long exams. Studying for these exams took almost all of my spare time for about 4 months in my first year after arriving here. And in the final month, when the exams were held, I did not go to work at all, but spent day and night at home studying. It was one of the most gruelling experiences of my life.
Why did I have to study so hard? I had seen the statistics on passing these exams. They were not encouraging. Many people speculated that the purpose of the exams was not, as you might have thought, to check that foreign lawyers had enough knowledge of Hong Kong law to give good legal advice. The purpose of the Overseas Lawyers Qualification Exams was to exclude foreigners from the legal profession as much as possible. Each year at least one of the four exams would have a pass rate around 30%. In this way, they suggested, the legal profession would be preserved from including too many foreigners who might harm the success of local lawyers. The qualification process was designed to exclude rather than include foreign lawyers in the legal profession in Hong Kong.
Why am I torturing you with information about admission to legal practice in Hong Kong? It is because I want to consider with you today the qualifications we require for entry to heaven. I believe the Bible passages that Robert read to us today have an important message about how we can qualify for God’s love. And about how we might be trying to qualify by taking the wrong exams or even setting the wrong exams for others.
Let’s start with Jesus – usually a good place to begin. What did he say?
As Luke retells this event in Jesus ministry, Jesus is prompted to teach by a person’s real situation and he goes on to use a parable to illustrate his point. A man asks Jesus to adjudicate between himself and his brother on their inheritance. In fact, the man asks Jesus to determine that he and his brother should receive equal shares of their father’s property. Equal shares seems like a pretty fair outcome to us. But under to the law of the time, sons received disproportionate inheritance according to their birth order. The eldest son was designated to inherit the position of head of the family. This position would bring both privilege and responsibility including financial obligations. The eldest son therefore usually received a larger inheritance of the father’s property to meet these obligations and set him up to continue the family’s prosperity.
So the man who asks Jesus for an equal share is the younger son. We don’t know why he thought he was entitled to this much, that is, more than he would usually receive. Maybe the two sons had shared equally in building up the family property with their father. It’s interesting that this man believes that Jesus can decide between them. Clearly he trusts Jesus’ judgment and maybe he thinks Jesus will be take pity on the younger son who receives less. After all, Jesus has a reputation for being kind to those who are missing out in society.
But Jesus redirects the man’s concern. Instead of granting or denying the man’s petition, Jesus simply refuses to get involved. Then he turns to the crowd and warns them against seeking more wealth than they already have, being driven by greed.
A couple of weeks’ ago when Rev Judy gave the children’s talk about Mary and Martha, she asked them the question – What would you do if you met God? This man too had the opportunity to meet God and to ask his most important question. And what does he do with this moment? He wants to know if Jesus can work it so he gets a bit more of his Dad’s money. It might seem like a wasted opportunity to us. It shows how driven by his desire for more wealth this man was.
But, although Jesus might be disapppointed, he doesn’t spend more time rebuking the man. He uses the man’s request to teach. Jesus describes a rich man who had so much grain he decided to build extra barns to house it. And when they were built, the rich man felt satisfied. He said to himself: “Well, I’ve made it. I have more wealth than I am ever going to need. I can sit back and relax and enjoy it.” As it turned out, the rich man did not have much longer to enjoy his wealth for he had to leave it behind that very night. The rich man thought he had qualified for everything that mattered. But he was wrong. As Jesus says to the crowd: “A person’s true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be.”
So it’s pretty clear that if we plan to qualify for God’s love, money is not going to be a big help and “wealth accumulation” is definitely not the exam paper we ought to be enrolling for.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul reminds us that we already know which qualification we needed. Indeed, what we know is, we have already received the ‘pass’ on our exam paper. Paul writes: “You have been raised to life with Christ.” Not only have we already been qualified, but we didn’t even sit the horrible test. We know that Christ, who had all the answers, went and took the paper for us. And, by our faith in the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection, we get to take that pass mark on our report card too. Earlier in his letter to the Colossians, in a passage we heard two weeks ago, Paul wrote: “by means of the physical death of his Son, God has made you his friends, in order to bring you holy, pure and faultless into his presence. You must of course continue faithful on a firm foundation, and must not allow yourselves to be shaken from the hope you gained when you heard the gospel.”
Holy, pure and faultless in the presence of God – we could not possibly want for higher qualifications than those.
And we are to remain faithful and maintain the hope we have because of God’s great gift to us in Christ. In the passage from Colossians we heard today, Paul said more about two consequences of our being freely qualified for God’s kingdom. Not qualifications for God’s love, but outcomes of being already fully qualified.
The first of these is the way we understand ourselves and live our lives in the here and now. Paul admonishes us to change our behaviour to reflect the great change in our status before God that Christ has accomplished for us. He calls us to put away the old behaviours and ways of being that were hurtful to ourselves and others – anger, hateful feelings, indecency and lies. We should put on the new self. It sounds like putting on a new piece of clothing, like a new suit or dress. And we know how sometimes just wearing new clothes can make us feel different. But unlike clothing, which only changes our outer appearance, Paul says we should put on a whole new being. To me this means, not only that we should treat others differently because of the new life we have received but that we should treat ourselves differently too. We should adopt God’s attitude of forgiveness and grace towards ourselves as well. Not wasting our energy and joy in self-loathing, self-pity, self-deception or unhealthy self-criticism. We are fully qualified for love from God – we need not deny ourselves the experience of true grace.
The second consequence of our being reconciled with God of which Paul writes is that we should recognise this new life and new being in others as well. We no longer need to distinguish people by the old measures – because those qualifications are no longer relevant. We should not be assessing people with tests that are designed to exclude those who fail. We all hold the same diploma – the sacrifice of Christ. So, Paul says, there is no longer any distinction between slave or free, Jew or Gentile and so on. Then he sums up the whole of the message for today in 7 words: “Christ is all, Christ is in all.”
Christ is all any of us needs to be within God’s grace, and all of us have received that gift of grace through Christ. Not through any process of qualification that depended on our own effort or merit. What remains is for us to live as though we believe it – because we do.
I see this attitude – Christ is all, Christ is in all – very much alive in our congregation. It is one of the reasons I love to be a part of this church. For in our congregation there is no distinction between those who are wealthy and those who are in need; between those who are older and those who are younger; between those who visit once and those who have come here for decades; no distinction between those who practice law and those who have been in prison; those who come early for worship and those who barely catch the sermon. As for distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, we have an abundance of ethnic, cultural and linguistic origins among us. I have long worshipped in city churches. From Canberra to Jerusalem. Their congregations have a particular character – membership changes often, they may be multi-cultural, they are usually conscious of wider social and political issues. I have never seen a congregation that seeks to hold so much diversity together in one body as this one does.
We welcome people from all walks of life, from any Christian tradition, we invite them to pray in their own languages, we seek a unity of worship and fellowship that includes all, we offer people membership without relinquishing their affiliations elsewhere. We ask people to exercise their gifts in whatever way they feel able; and we allow people just to be, in this space and among us, in peace. When you share the peace with one another today, look around at the diversity of the body of Christ. There is much to be thankful for.
We know that none of us has qualified for the love of God by our own actions. When we hear Paul’s list of behaviours that we ought to put away like old clothing, maybe we feel that we are again falling short of what is required. We may be tempted to focus on the ways in which we see others failing to implement their new being in Christ. It is important for us to remember the passage we heard from Hosea today. It reminds us that God’s love for us has been constant and ardent long before we knew of it. Hosea speaks of God as a tender parent, bending down to care for a child, gathering up his people in his arms, even when they did not acknowledge him. God mourns for the harm we do to ourselves and others, and God is also angered by it, but God’s love is too strong to allow what we do, our shortcomings, to turn him away. “How can I give you up? How can I abandon you? My heart will not let me do it.” says the Lord in Hosea.
In our own hearts and in our caring for each other let us continue to be constantly renewed in the image of this loving God. Amen.
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