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.