Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 23rd March 2008 by Rev. Dr. Jochen Teuffel. The scripture readings that day were John 20:1-18.
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, «They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.»
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look [A] into the tomb;
12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
13 They said to her, «Woman, why are you weeping?» She said to them, «They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.»
14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, «Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?» Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, «Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.»
16 Jesus said to her, «Mary!» She turned and said to him in Hebrew, «Rabbouni!» (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, «Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' »
18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, «I have seen the Lord»; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
What a story is told to us on this Easter Sunday. The stone which had sealed the tomb, has been removed. From now on everything is open. Indeed someone is missing, as Mary Magdalene reported to the disciples: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The past has been displaced, no corpse in the tomb, the remains of a life whose spirit was pressed out on the cross of Calvary are gone.
Peter did not want to believe it, so he had to enter the tomb, but all what he found, was the linen wrappings lying there and the cloth which covered Jesus head rolled up in place by itself.
Yes, it was, as Mary Magdalene has told him: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.” No one around in the early morning, nothing one can do, therefore Peter and the one whom Jesus loved went home again.
But Mary unable to accept the sudden disappearance of the corpse stayed back, weeping outside the tomb. We know that tombs are one of the most sensitive places in our world. They remind us of someone gone, and somehow appear to be the place where we can still meet them. In our own remembrance the person deceased will be present, yet in a very limited way which cannot satisfy our longing for him or her. The outcome of such tension is nothing less than mourning, in Mary’s vivid imagination the Lord is still there, yet no longer in the tomb, but he is no longer accessible. Life can no longer be shared with him in future. The relationship with him is confined to the past. And memories are the touching moments when the past enters our present life. But those encounters with the past do not have any promise for the future. Death does not have any promise when it comes to life. Therefore, the process of mourning is a necessary one for it slowly, very slowly dissolves our own life-sharing ties with a dead person close to us, and in a way frees us from any common expectations towards future. And I think this is very crucial. If our life is still bound to someone who is no longer alive, we participate in his or her death, and there will be hardly any life in us. Our own life is somehow frozen by the death of the beloved ones.
Frozen life, that means nothing else than life confined to the past, indeed Mary is staring into the empty tomb, caught up in hurting memories, no moves, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb” but I cannot follow him anymore, life without any future direction, no way to go, just staring into an empty tomb.
Two angles sitting there where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. What an encounter, messengers from God. Why are you weeping? Her answer is self-revealing: “«They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.» They have taking away my Lord, they have taken away all I had, my Lord, even my memories have no place to focus on. I do no know where to go.
Yes, human bodies, corpses can be taken away, they can be burned to ashes, they can be rotten, they can be disposed and displaced, by not the Lord, the Son of God, for he is there, standing right in front of her, but Mary is unable to recognize him. As her whole mind is still taken up by the search for a corpse, a body, which she still addresses as “my Lord”, her only hope is that the person next to her is the gardener, who – for what reason ever – has taken care of the corpse: «Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.»
I will take him away, I will take my Lord though he is dead with me, I will never let him go. His body is all what I have. Her desire for Christ is so strong that she even wants to embrace his death.
However, the Lord is far more than a dead body, a corpse to be taken with. He addresses the desperate women with her own name, “Mary!” Only then she is able to recognize him. “Rabbuni,” My teacher, my Lord, there he is, in the reach of her own arms, yet the risen Christ prevent her from clinging to him. His body does not belong to her, noli me tangere, do not touch me. I do not belong to you now at this tomb. You are not to embrace me right now.
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This is the core sentence of the encounter with the risen Christ. This is the message which Mary is supposed to witness to the followers of Christ.
Christ is risen, but not in such a way that we (out of ourselves) can grasp him with our own hands and arms. He does not belong to our sphere, not to be reintegrated into our daily life, in stead, ascension indicates the direction. Ascending to his father, who is also our father, ascending to his God who is also our God.
Christ’s resurrection is not an example of immortality for the biological life on earth, instead his resurrection is meant to draw us into the life-giving community with his heavenly Father.
The challenge for us, whatever we embrace with our own arms on earth, cannot be preserved by us, subjected to death, evoking memories confined to the past, never able to satisfy our desire for life.
It is the risen Christ, addressing us, with our own name, who is not to be embraced according our own desires. Only the way he gives himself to us is the right way to embrace him as the risen one, (life not simply to be retrieved, reanimated, but to be transformed). Yet so often our own desire wants to grasp, to hold life back in the sphere of death. Where life is mingled with death, as it is the reality on this earth, there will by suffering and mourning, for one of us will be gone, and the other has to bear his or her loss by mourning.
Our life here on earth is interlarded with tombs and graves. And every one of them reminds us of a loss. But as the risen Christ told Mary “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” There is this promise of eternal life in the community with our heavenly father, where death no longer can interfere by cutting of life-lines and loving relationships. Imagine, there is this promised place in the bosom of our heavenly father devoid of graves, the place where the mournful past will be recovered by the full extent of life. And it all depends on the encounter with the risen Lord, who is not a dead corpse to be displaced. No, his voice is already her, and actually, when we celebrate Eucharist, he will be here in the midst of us with his risen body. He will draw us into the community with the triune God, as the Apostle Paul has witnessed:
“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, for He is risen.”
Our Messiah is a humble and suffering God
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 16th March 2008 by Ms. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 118: 1-2; 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11.
Opening prayer: Triune God, may your Words inspire us and guide us to the Truth through the Holy Spirit, we ask in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
On Friday noon time, I received a call from a former classmate at Divinity School of Chung Chi College. She told me a sad piece of news. A Myanmar student, our common friend, died all of a sudden. The cause of her death is still under investigation. The name of this Myanmar student is Soe Soe Mar. A month ago she was with us worshipping God together in this sanctuary. A few days before she died, we were communicating with each other through e-mail. I was shocked and saddened to hear her sudden death. Life is so unpredictable and vulnerable.
The gospel reading for today is Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew quoted this passage from Zechariah 9:9 when narrating the story of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem marked the beginning of his passion and death on the cross in a week’s time. Amidst all the noise and excited crowd, Jesus realized well that what was ahead of him was an agonizing journey of betrayal, torture, crucifixion, and death.
The journey of passion was predicted by Jesus as described in Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23. It was only the crowd and even the disciples who could not believe that Jesus, who was identified as prophet, a person that they expected to save them, will be crucified so soon. The time came very quickly, Jesus was crucified less than a week after such an honorable entry to the city. All of a sudden Jesus died on the cross. It would be no surprise if the disciples and the crowd were shocked and saddened.
What does Jesus’ messianic entry to Jerusalem and his passion and death that came afterwards mean to us? Who is our savor?
Last September when many monks and activists protested against the brutal junta rule, they fought for their basic human rights in Burma, Soe Soe Mar sent me an e-mail sharing her confession upon the episode of the suppression of civil movement and killings of the monks. This piece of sharing was later published in the Newsletter of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College I summarize in brief she said,
“I have to confess my sin to God. I am just working in lip service. Christians claim that Christianity is a religion of love. But I don’t have enough love that the reverent Myanmar Buddhist monks have. My love in me is mingled with fear. I don’t have such kind of power and love that the monks possess. I do not dare to suffer the pain that the monks have been through. I cannot face the deadly torture that the monks have experienced in the barracks. I cannot die as indecently as the monks’ corpses in the river. I have no intention to give my life for poor Myanmar like what the monks have given. I claim that I will die in Jesus but I never put it into practice. The monks who do not know Jesus died for the sake of Myanmar’s recovering. They died not in Jesus but Jesus dies in them.”
In her piece of sharing she continued, “God is revealing God-self to Burma not through Christianity or me or Christian leaders who so-called themselves the children of God but through the Buddhist monks who do not possess the person of Jesus but the exact image of Jesus, who have the exact ethics of Jesus, which is the virtue of love, who exactly follow the road that Jesus has walked, who are not interested in their own personal salvation or eternal prosperity so that they, too, are not interested in others’ salvation but the whole cosmos being freed.”
Her sharing was striking not only because of her sincere self criticism and repentance, but also her sharp perception to challenge Christians who claim to be children of God, people of God, disciples of God, our neglect and escape from human sufferings. In her sharing she also raised an important question for response to the passion and death of Jesus. Instead of passively taking the advantage of God’s grace, how do we participate in the salvation of the humanity through Jesus Christ? It is a core faith for us as Christians
When we talk about Myanmar, the Nobel Price Winner Aung San Suu Kyi is another suffering figure of the country due to the military autocratic rule. As of today, the 16th March, Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for a total of 12 years and 141 days. She is still under house arrest. Suu Kyi has been suffering from violation of human rights but insist to fight against tyranny through non-violent struggles. Suu Kyi chose not to leave her home country when her husband died in England in 1999 because she knew once she leaves she will never be allowed back into the country. She chose to fight for a democratic Burma that people can lead a live free from oppression. She pays the cost of sacrificing her family and her own freedom. Her suffering however has not yet come to an end.
Amidst the despair and suffering, the Monks and Suu Kyi’s sacrifice have encouraged many people in Burma and all over the world to demonstrate in solidarity with the Burmese people. At the centre of their pain, there is light and hope. They have touched the hearts of many people who join with them the struggles for liberation, life of enrichment and love-kindness for human-kind. A Free Burma Coalition---Hong Kong has been set up recently to continue the concern and support to the people in Burma, to fight for a better society where human rights are respected. Last Sunday was the Global Day of Prayer for Burma, an interfaith candle-lit vigil to demonstrate solidarity and pray for the people of Burma in particular for women was organized in Hong Kong. Although the progress seems very slow and the road to make a change is still steep and rough, the struggle will go on for there is still hope.
Here I share another story of how a person was in touch with our suffering God, Jesus Christ. I met an old lady Mrs Tse a few years ago. She was in her 70s and suffered from lung cancer. Two years before she died of her incurable illness, she had to go in and out of the hospital for treatment. One of the problems she suffered was accumulation of water in the lung that made it difficult for her to breathe. She had to undergo an extremely painful water extraction treatment several times. But when her son asked her if she was painful, she shared that the pain that she had gone through in the treatment when compared with the pains of Jesus at the Cross was nothing. Mrs Tse was courageous to stand for the pain. She had no complains of God or anyone. She prayed to God for peace every time she had to take the treatment. Every single time after the treatment she gave thanks to God for the peace she was given. Mrs Tse was a very positive and kind person, whenever she felt a bit better and was able to walk around, she would give help to patients in her ward by pouring warm water to those who were unable to move. She would also grasp the opportunity to share with others the gospel and to comfort those who were in distress. As a human being, Mrs Tse did suffer physical pain and emotional turmoil of separation from family after death. Through her love to her family and God, as well as her trust in God, she was able to overcome her stressful and painful moments in the last stage of her life. Mrs Tse was a tough woman; she became a widow when her youngest son was small. She had to take care of her family on her own. Even though she was burdened by family responsibilities; she nevertheless continued to serve in her church and to serve those in need till the end of her life. In Mrs Tse, I could see how Jesus’ passion and death had given her life.
Mrs Tse’s focus on the pains of Jesus during her sickness had saved her from the physical hardship. Through her compassion towards the suffering of Jesus and her willingness to walk with Jesus’ passion, she was healed spiritually. Her faith in Jesus had brought her comfort and relieve.
Let’s go back to the scripture of Matthew 21:1-11. Through the drama of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem as the messianic king, he fulfilled the messiah-ship by visually demonstrating to his people of who he was.
Jesus rode on a donkey. Donkey is a creature not associated with what it means to be king. The Messiah of Zechariah 9:9-10 is quoted in Matthew 21:5. The Messiah does not mount horse; instead, he will abolish war chariots and weapons and bring peace to the nations. Jesus rode on a donkey rather than a warhorse, it was strong indication that his kingdom will be one of peace rather than of coercion.
In addition, Jesus rode on a donkey and on the colt of a donkey is to be understood as an expression of his kindness, peaceableness, and gentleness. From earlier passage Matthew 11:29, where Jesus had described himself as ‘gentle and humble in heart”. In Jesus, we can see the delicate quality of lowliness and humility.
Our God who saves us does not and will not triumph through force of arms. Jesus was victorious and yet meek. The type of leadership that Jesus has illustrated is a complete opposite to the world’s notions of kingship and authority. In our competitive and instrumental world, success is too often defined as how much power do you have to control other people and dominate different resources. We have to learn from Jesus’ kindness and his approach of peace and meekness.
Jesus came to the world to give peace. Peace also means wholeness. Jesus was handed over to passion and through his passion accomplishes his divine task on earth. It is good news for a world passionately searching for wholeness.
Today is the Palm Sunday. It occurs on the Sunday before Easter Sunday in the Western Christian liturgical calendar. It signals the upcoming end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. In the Holy Week, we can recall the stages of Christ passing from this world. It is a solemn passage through loneliness, betrayal, injustice, and brutal suffering. It is a movement from life to death.
Holy Week means accompanying Christ on his final journey, bearing our own crosses in trusting silence. In the coming Holy Week, we can try to let go of our own situation and focus on Jesus, a suffering God who is giving his live to humankind in order to save us. By embracing the pain, we can then talk about joy. We can then share a life that experiences the full presence of God, the grace and love fill abundantly in a person who is in full communion with God.
Holy Week is a season of Passion. Passion can be taken as a kind of waiting---waiting for what other people are going to do. If we say we are in need to be redeemed, then we have to take an active part in Jesus’ passion in our life. We have to share the struggles of Jesus Christ, our Lord who suffers and goes through a painful journey.
The triumphant entry demonstrates to us Jesus our Lord is the holy one in highest heaven who manifests himself in humbleness and kindness. Our savior is a suffering God. It is his unconditional love and compassion through his utter vulnerability that we are saved.
When I re-read Soe Soe Mar’s sharing, her sincere and deep confession touch my heart once again. Her critical reflection of faith has posed a challenge to all Christians to re-examine our commitment to God’s love and, our sincere response to Jesus’ suffering and death who comes to the world to save our fallen humanities. This challenge is timely at the season of passion.
Dear God, we thank you for your unfailing love to us and all humankind reveal in Lord Jesus. You are our savior to give us life and to transform our life with faith and hope in Jesus’ sacrifice. Lord, guide us and give us courage to walk with Jesus for a life of passion, pain and yet fulfilling and meaningful. God, help us to live under your cross and proclaim the hope of your cross unceasingly. Amen.
“My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:1)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9th March 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 51 and Romans 7:14-25.
Last Tuesday as in any Tuesday during school term in the past eight years, I was on the way from my home in Sai Kung to go to Lutheran Theological Seminary in Shatin to teach. As I was about to enter the Choi Hung MTR station, I was stopped by a teenager. He asked me to buy a $10 raffle ticket. I was in a hurry. I didn’t even bother to find out what was the charity he was helping and just continued my journey. Then at Tai Wai Train Station, I was stopped by an old lady. She was trying to sell me a $25 pack of cookies prepared by Helping Hand. Again I did not comply to her request.
I did not feel good that whole afternoon despite I had a good session with the 14 graduate and 3 undergraduate students. I truly regret that I did not buy that raffle ticket or that pack of cookies. My little gesture of kindness probably would make the teenager and the old lady felt a lot better. I truly regret the fact that I did not care even to stop for a few seconds and responded. How similar I was to the priest or the Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10!
Indeed, daily we have committed the sin of omission much more than the sin of commission. Furthermore we are driven by this sense of guilt all day long.
We do know what we should do but fail to do. I was a founding member of the Civic Party – the youngest political party in Hong Kong. But for all of last year, I failed to attend any of their meetings. Every time I was informed by phone or by e-mail about meetings of all sorts, I always made excuses. I felt guilty about it.
During the past two decades, I was a frequent speaker or leader in ecclesiastical or secular meetings and seminars. After my sessions, I felt bad because there were always points which I discovered I have not thought through thoroughly. Perhaps this was one reason why I was forced to re-work and resulting in numerous published articles and 24 books.
Apostle Paul said, “Not one of the persons does right, not a single one.” (Rom. 3:12). The major reason is that we are separated from God, from our reason or ground of existence if you like.
The Greek word for sin is harmatia. Harmatia literally means the target is missed. As human beings we have missed the target in life. We are out of focus in our life. This is what Paul meant when he said, “all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12) or “all have sinned and lack God’s glory” (Rom 3:23).
So sin is more than something we should not do, but do; or something we should do, but do not do. Sin is a state of our being. The Psalmists put it in the way, “I was born guilty, a sinner from the moment of conception.” (Ps. 51:5). We all know that physically all human beings are separated from our mothers’ womb since birth. But few realize that ontologically we, as human beings are separated from God. Further, we actively participate in it.
First, this is manifested by the separation or alienation between people. In this urbanized world, people just do not trust each other and tend to exploit the other. People are only concerned for themselves. Not too long ago, I was in Geneva for a meeting. In between sessions, one of the local friends took me to the old town for a walk. He told me that housing was in great demand and therefore very expensive. According to him, one of the reasons was that the divorce rate in that city was very high. So it ended up that instead of a couple sharing an apartment, two different apartments were required.
We all have heard about the Apartheid policy in South Africa or how the white people treated their Afro-American brothers and sisters in the Deep South of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia in the 1960s. We deplore this kind of racial discrimination. But is this also deep down in our hearts?
In the 1980s when the Mainland of China began to open up, there were a lot of exchanges and encounters between the people from the mainland and the citizens of Hong Kong. We looked down on our counterparts and labelled them as “亞燦”.
There are about 200,000 ladies from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and some parts of South Asia working in Hong Kong as domestic helpers. They made significant contributions in Hong Kong, enabling many young couples to continue their professional work which in turn assist the overall socio-economic development in the territory. But how does Hong Kong treat them? First, they were given a despicable monthly salary of $3600. Second, they will not be given the permanent residency status even though they have worked and lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years. Third, a decade ago, the 2-week rule was introduced forcing all helpers to leave within two weeks if they are no longer employed.
Indeed, this world is full of deceit, injustices, exploitations. Many a time, we do not want to face them or worse still attempt to run away.
More than three decades ago, our church hosted an exchanged high school student from Chicago. He was 15. Soon after his arrival I could detect that he was home-sick, could not get along well with his fellow students at school and could not adapt to the fast pace of life in Hong Kong. So every morning, he had great difficulty in getting up and to any surprise, from time to time he did not go to school at all.
My first year at Yale was tough. I was fortunate enough to have a full scholarship. But I still wanted to earn some pocket money to buy books and for miscellaneous expenses. After a full month, I was not able to find any part-time job. So finally I landed in a part-time employment in the school refractory. I still remember very vividly I was extremely embarrassed in my first day of work – wearing the white uniform to clear the dinning room tables. I could not come to terms with myself why a HKU graduate would become a waiter in a dinning room in front of many familiar faces and friends.
We do not want to face the realities in our life. We often think that some other life situations are better.
In the 1980s, many of my contemporaries and old acquaintances migrated to North America. They believed the life there was better and it was especially good for their children. But after a few years many of them have come back because they could not find any work to do there. Many became distraught because of the various kinds of “broken family scenarios”.
Sometimes, people hide in the past. I have an uncle who was a senior county official in the mainland in the 1940s. When he came to Hong Kong as a refugee in 1950, he had problem to stay in a job for long. One reason was because of his lack of English so he could not really find a job of responsibility. But the main reason was that he was not able to forget the high position he held in the mainland and was always unhappy with any clerical jobs he landed on.
However tough our life condition, it is still our life which is given by God. As our life is a tremendous gift from God, we must live it with a sense of gratitude. Furthermore, we should believe that one way or another we are under God’s love and care.
Helen Keller probably was one of the greatest authors and humanitarian in the last century. She was blind and deaf. In her autobiography, she wrote about her thankfulness to God for giving her courage and strength to overcome her disabilities and thus was able to see the beauty of this world. Keller died in 1968.
Marilyn Monroe, one of the most renowned actresses in the 1950s and 60s, told us about her early life that she was raped by her step-father at the age of 17 and undertook a forced abortion when she was 19. A journalist asked her when she had married Arthur Miller, a famous writer, how she would want to change her past life. After a brief pause, she said “nothing”, especially if those were what they took to bring her happiness and success.
One of the autobiographies which touched my life was Sammy Davies Jr.’s book titled “Yes I Can”. One day Sammy was involved in a car accident. When he woke up in the hospital he was told that he would lose sight of his left eye forever. It must be a terrible blow for an actor. He had thought of giving up acting altogether. But after a long period of depression, he decided yes, he could continue to act. Eventually he became a super star in Hollywood and beyond.
During the Second World War, millions went through unspeakable suffering. A girl called Kitty Hart in her book described her experiences of losing everything, especially her loved ones. The title of her book is “I Am Alive”. Needless to say, it was an affirmation of life.
When we went through difficulties in our life, (there are necessarily plenty) we could not help but exclaimed like the Psalmists, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Even Jesus, in his darkest hour of being hung on the
cross did the same. This kind of “being abandoned experience” is very real. When we are down and distraught, we tend to isolate ourselves even from our loved ones. This is only human. But the fact remains the people around us especially our loved ones are eager to accept us and embrace us. In other words, in final analysis, it is we who have abandoned God in our dark hours and not the other way round. God has never abandoned us. This is what it means to have faith in God: God will never abandon us!
The Psalm (Psalm 51) we chose for this morning’s Old Testament lesson is a prayer of contrition. We have almost reached the end of this year’s Lenten season. Lent is a season of deep reflection and repentance. Like the Psalmists we come to God with a contrite heart. We confess to God that we have turned away from Him by not cherishing the life which He has given us. We need to repent and turn back to God and with a thankful heart accept His gift of life to each and everyone of us.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, create in us a clean heart, renew in us a resolute spirit, do not drive us away from your presence, do not take away from us your spirit of holiness. Give us back the joy of your salvation; In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
“Who shall separate us from the Love of God” (Romans 8:35)
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2nd March 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 118:1-14 and Romans 8:31-39.
Four decades ago, Kenneth Boulding in his book, “The Meaning of the 20th Century”, suggested that human beings lived in an era of post-civilization. What he meant was that radical changes had taken place since the renaissance, i.e. the end of the medieval times which were labelled as the dark ages. For example in the 18th century, there were important political revolutions – highlighted by the American Revolution in 1776 and the French revolution in 1789. In the 19th century, there came the industrial and economic revolutions. In the 20th century, the changes were so immense and so radical that it could be said that human beings lived in an entirely different world and encountered a civilization which was entirely different from all of human history.
First, it was about the change of life style and mindset. Before, human beings lived in rural areas with a rural mindset. The pace was slow. Human beings living in the same village knew each other and were rather close. In the 20th century, most people lived in cities, or urban centres. In the early 1960s, there exist “stript cities” in the United States of America. One in the West Coast, one in the East coast, another in the Great Lake Area and yet another in the St. Louis area. In these areas, the city boundaries were quite unclear. I still remember when I rode a train from New Haven to New York, I could hardly see any empty space without houses built on it. The pace of urban life was fast. Though living so close together, people may not know one another. Not too long ago, I was invited to visit an old friend who just moved into her new apartment in a housing complex. In the elevator, I asked her whether she has gotten to know her neighbours. Her not too surprised answer to me was that she has not even met all the people who lived on the same floor which consists of six apartments. Indeed we now live in a rather impersonal world!
It is generally accepted that we also now live in a post-modern world. This is mainly due to the extremely rapid scientific and technological developments.
In the fall of 1965, I went to hear a public lecture given by a Yale professor who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize on Physics. Being an outsider I did not catch what he said, except one thing: he told the audience at Yale that the Scientific-technological developments since the second world war, i.e. a span of 20 years, was greater than the summation of the past 2,000 years.
What did all these great scientific discoveries and developments bring us? First of all, a lot of convenience and comfort. In a way, they also greatly enhance human communications. I remember when I was a student at Yale, throughout the 3 years, I never called home once nor flew home for a visit. When our daughter went to further her studies in Portland, Oregon, some 30 years later we talked on the phone once a week and she flew home for holidays twice a year – Christmas and the summer!
Yet with all these “progress”, human beings could not avoid falling into the trap of chasing after only material things. This greatly affects our value system. We only cherish money which can buy us expensive things. We only treasure things which can give us immediate and tangible pleasure and reward. We almost forget completely simple things which enable us to be human such as caring and helping each other. On the contrary because we are so concerned about our own benefit that subconsciously we relate to other people if and only if it would be beneficial to us.
Martin Buber wrote a book entitled “Ich und Du” or “I and Thou”. Simply put, Buber purported that instead of relating people as people, we treat people as things, thus the “I-it” relationship.
We now live in the 21st century. This century is marked by capitalism driven globalization. In other words, the biggest force in to-day’s world is profit. Everybody is using all means possible to maximize his or her own profits. As a result we experience a snowball effect. The people with power and money will increase their wealth and power in geometrical scale. Consequently the poor and the powerless will become even poorer and more powerless.
We now live in a society which is highly materialistic and consumer oriented. The biggest business in Hong Kong perhaps is the betting on horses, on soccer games, on Mark Six administered by the Jockey Club. I was told most people play majong not for leisure but for gambling. People often go to Macau to gamble. Some would even take the overnight cruise in the open sea just to gamble. Recently, people in Hong Kong also gamble in the stock market. When people are so obsessed with getting a few quick bucks that they simply have nothing else but have adopted the “everybody for themselves” mindset.
Only if we care to read the daily newspapers or watch news in the television, we could not help but realize that we really are living in a chaotic world: a mother went to Macau to gamble for a week and left her 12-year old son at home alone; a 33-year old man hacked his mother to death simply because she refused to help him settle his gambling debts; a 52-year old teacher engaged in sex with one of his 11-year old students not once, but four times; a Form 2 student refused to go to school after the New Year holidays and bit his father to bleeding when his father tried to persuade him to go to school… etc. etc.
All this reminds us what was described in Genesis 3-11: People have turned away from God. The Disrelationship between God and human beings have resulted in the fact that people could not relate to each other; and further they cannot even relate to or accept themselves. Because of all these broken relationships, people on the whole have lost their sense of direction and purpose in life.
But the hard fact is that “no person is an island”. Whether we like it or not people are related to one another. Moreover, they have to depend on one another in order to survive. Next time you eat, think of the people who prepare your meal; think of the farmers who labour in the fields, think of the distributors… My wife and I live in a village in Sai Kung. Every time I meet the 2 street-cleaning ladies and the garbage collectors from the Food, Environment and Hygiene Department I would want to thank them for keeping the village in such clean and livable conditions. Daily I have to depend on the mini-bus drivers to take me to town and then to Choi Hung before I ride the underground train to Jordan. At KUC, I have to depend on Heddy to put my sermons into the computer; on Phyllis and Maggie to solve all the problems so that I can concentrate to do what I set out to do here at KUC. My list of the people I have to depend on can go on and on; and so must be yours.
We have to realize that finally it is God who calls us into existence. God has always put us into a community and specifically has asked us to take care of each other (c.f. Gen 2:15 and the story of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4). When human beings failed to do it, God was grieved in heart (Gen 6:6). As a matter of fact, God loves and cares for us so much so that He came to us and suffered with us and for us. This is the mystery of God’s Incarnation through Jesus Christ.
In a way, the seeming affluence in Hong Kong may not be a true blessing to our youngsters. Compared with the people in Hong Kong four decades ago, people nowadays are more materialistic and they tend to take things for granted.
I recall when I started to work in a slum area in Hong Kong in the 1960s, Hong Kong was relatively poor. I still remember how a family of six living in a 10 by 12 square feet resettlement cubicle happily. They all sat on the floor and put the parts of the plastic flowers together. In doing this day and night, they earned barely enough to buy food and all necessities.
One time, I saw a father sitting in a park early in the morning with her 8 or 9-year-old daughter and shared some bread and vitasoy together. After they had their breakfast, he took her to school before he went to work. This touched the bottom of my heart. Who can say there is no love in this world?
This is how I see God’s love at work. God is love. This is what every page of the Bible informs us. However, Love is not a concept. It is a driving force in our life. Love is hidden in us until we start to love and care. In other words, we can only experience the power of love when we start to love and share.
In quoting Jesus Christ, Paul said, “there is more happiness in giving than in receiving”. (Acts 20:35). This is what St. Francis of Assisi told us in one of his prayers:
“It is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
I have concluded that this indeed in the core message of the Christian Faith:
“In loving and caring for others, we experience God’s greater love and care.”
I had served in a slum area in Shek Kip Mei for 12 years. In looking back, in those difficult years, I have learned to share my life with many young people and those in need of my help. In so doing, I came to realize the value and purpose of life. The meaning of life lies in how much you are willing to share and contribute; and not in how much you can get and possess.
The love of God is forever with us. We fail to see or experience God’s love because we think we have no need of it. We think we can do everything by ourselves.
When we encounter some difficulties in our life – there are plenty; (there is a Chinese saying, most of our life experiences are negative) – we tend to shut our doors and refuse God’s help through our relatives, friends or colleagues. Thus, we fall into the abyss of helplessness and unlove. There is a truism, saying, the worst enemy in our life is ourself.
Apostle Paul, in his lowest ebb in life, being kept in prison in Rome, came to realize that nothing can separate him from the love of Christ – not hardships, distress, persecutions, lack of food and clothing, threats of violence… (Rom 8:25-26).
But there is. There is something which can separate us from the love of Christ. It is our stubbornness. It is we who turned away from God, refuse to accept God’s love.
We are in Lent again. The Lentern season is a season of deep reflection and repentance. We need to take seriously the fact that we are mortal beings. We need to turn back to God and let God’s love surround us again.
Glory be to God. Amen.
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