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.