A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 4th May 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Amos 5:21-27 and Matthew 25:31-46.
This is the last of the series of nine sermons on “Our Faith in God”. We believe that God is the God of love who cares and continues to act in His whole creation and in each and everyone of us.
Last Thursday, May 1, was Labour Day. Some churches therefore celebrate Labour Sunday this Sunday. It is time for the Church to recognise the hard work and contributions labourers make to the whole society and remember that many labourers throughout the world, Hong Kong workers included, do not receive the full benefits and protection they deserve.
According to the Christian calendar, last Thursday was Ascension Day. That was the day when the Church celebrated the completion of Jesus’ earthly life. God came to the world and intervened in human history through Jesus Christ. The earthly life of Jesus was highlighted by his crucifixion and resurrection. After this, physically, Jesus departed from the world. The Early Church used the symbols of Incarnation and Ascension to mark the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Next Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost or the coming of the Holy Spirit. Christ continues to be with us in the form of the Holy Spirit.
Our faith in God or essentially our faith in the Triune God: God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer is the One and only God who continues to work in us and through us. Therefore, our faith in God has always life implications. We are demanded to be faithful to God and participate in God’s continuing creating, redeeming and sustaining activities in this world. So the Christian faith or our faith in God compels us to be actively involved in God’s entire creation rather than to hide in a little secure corner we have created for our own safety. The question for the Church to-day is no longer WHY we need to be involved in the world, in the whole social process, but rather HOW. How on earth do we participate in God’s saving acts in this world?
Let us begin with the history of Israel, God’s chosen people. The most important pillar is the Exodus Event which began with the Israelites who were aliens in Egypt since Joseph. When they became numerous and strong, the Egyptians were scared. So they decided to suppress the Israelites: forced the adults to do hard labour as slaves and conducted infanticide – killing all new-born baby boys.
God did not turn away from the suffering of His people. This was what God said to Moses, “I have seen how cruelly my people are being tracked in Egypt; I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave-drivers. I know all about their sufferings, and so I have decided to come down to rescue them out of Egypt to a spacious land…” (Ex 3:7-8). So when God sees, hears and knows human suffering, He will respond and act. To-day where are the people who suffer? Where are the people who cry out for help? Are the people in the war-torn areas in Palestine, in Iraq, in Afghanistan… in Tribal wars in Darfar, Sudan, in Kenya, in Zimbabwe; in civil unrest in Tibet, in Southern Thailand, in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka or the people who live in abject poverty in every corner of this planet earth…? In Hong Kong, there are almost 200,000 women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Sub-Asia working as domestic helpers; 50,000 migrant workers working in construction sites; 20,000 sex workers, 2000 asylum seekers…. They are our brothers and sisters. How can we ensure that their basic human rights are respected and safeguarded? These are the little ones whom Jesus identified with.
I led two church retreats during the Holy Week. One for St. Thomas Church on Good Friday and the other for St. Joseph Church on Holy Saturday. I had fruitful discussion on both occasions. Many pertinent questions were raised. One was why Jesus only identified with the poor and the powerless? Is the Christian Gospel for everyone including the rich and the powerful?
This is the story I shared with them
When I was growing up, our family lived near the Botanical Garden on the Hong Kong island. We did not have any toys at home. So on Saturday afternoon, our mother would take my brother and me to the garden to play. Besides the swing, we often played at the see-saw. Since my brother was bigger than I (I guess at least 6-8 pounds heavier than I), had not my mother stood on my side and used her hand to help, I would be on top all the time and the see-saw would not move, much less to move up and down in a speed which both my brother and I enjoyed. That explains why Jesus and His successor the Church, like my mother, need to side with the poor and the powerless.
Let us look at the story of the development of human rights.
In the beginning of time, all human beings were equal. They shared the same rights and responsibilities. They all had the natural world, within it particularly the animal world to combat. There was no privileged class among people.
But as time went on, human greed and selfishness surfaced. For those who were physically stronger, they dominated the scene. They claimed leadership among the weak and the young. Consequently, the more greedy and powerful the leaders, the more rights and privileges they enjoyed. Within a short period of time, the powerful leaders had formed an authoritarian clique. Those in authority enjoyed endless influence and privileges. Immediately this became a snowball effect: those who had the power and privileges amassed even more power and rights while those who had less power would soon become even more powerless and poorer. This phenomenon soon became systematized. Feudalistic or closed societies came into being and dominated the entire world for ages, even up to this day. Of course during the long centuries, there were a few changes, land and wealth, and lately knowledge, skills as well as connections to those in positions of power have taken over mere physical might. To-day, the people who have the economic, the political or perhaps the military power can get whatever they want. Despite the scientific and technological advancement, the gaps between the rich and poor were never so weighty in the human history. Globalization makes this polarization even worse. Unless this trend is slowed down or better still reversed, the world will become even more unstable and chaotic. The Church, God’s servant in the world, just cannot ignore this very grave situation.
Where does the Church start to care? First and foremost, it has to decide to stand alongside the poor and the powerless, the marginalized and the oppressed. This indeed is what the N.T. lesson tells us: Jesus identified fully with these people.
Simple acts of charity can help and are important. We may want to give or to share a little more of what we have to a good cause. We may engage in some kind of volunteer work. Some twenty years ago, the church where I have served for 11½ years decided to care for the elderly who lived nearby the church. Six days a week they were served by the Home Help service, receiving two hot meals a day, but not on Sundays and public holidays (when the home helpers had their days off). So a group of church members cooked a hot meal and after the Sunday worship brought it to these elderly clients. This simple act of love was appreciated especially in the winter months.
But the Church might want to go beyond the simple acts of charity. It was some forty-two years ago when I started to serve in Shek Kip Mei, the first resettlement estate in Hong Kong. One day, a woman came to see me and begged for some money to buy food for her family. Out of my kind heart I complied to her request and gave her a few dollars. Afterwards, we became friends. She lived in Tai Hang Tung Resettlement Estate and worked in a factory in Cheung Sha Wan. So everyday she had to pass through the church where I was the minister. She was a very humble person, trying her best to take care of her family of five. Later I found out that her husband was a drug addict. So I tried to encourage him to kick the habit in Shek Ku Chau. He did. But unfortunately after a few months my friend told me that her husband could not resist peer pressure and took drugs again. Months passed by, my friend did not visit me. But one day, she suddenly came to see me and in tears told me that her husband had sold her 16-year-old girl to a dance hall. I was so shocked that I did not know what to say, much less to help or to comfort her.
After weeks, I recovered from the shock. I learned a very important lesson. When the woman wanted money to buy food, I gave her money. When her husband needed to kick the habit of abuse of drugs, I made the connection… Were these enough? Obviously the answer was “No”. We have to be concerned with the social forces which oppressed the weak and the young.
So no matter how well intentioned and well executed works of charity, they are far from adequate. At best they may serve as stop-gap measures. The Church as a whole should be concerned about the unjust social structures in every corner of the world. For it is preciously because of all forms of social injustice which the weak and the young fall victims and suffer immeasurably.
We may not be able to do a great deal to change the unjust social structures within our life-time. But as a start, we must keep constant vigil about what is going on in the world and around us, especially from the perspective of the marginalized, the poor and the powerless. For often the people in positions of power and authority make decisions to their own benefit while nobody is watching.
In 1981, when London realized that they must return Hong Kong to China no later than 1997, it created a new passport for all citizens born in its own colonial territory called BDTC (or British Dependent Territory Citizen), which effectively deprived the 3.25 million British citizens born in Hong Kong the right of abode and the right of entry to the United Kingdom. Then in 1986, it further distanced itself by changing the name of the passport to BNO (or British Nationals Overseas). By introducing these drastic measures the British government really has abdicated its constitutional as well as moral responsibilities to the citizens in its territory. Worse still, it did that behind closed doors, without the citizens in Hong Kong knowing the details.
Of course, both the British Government and the Chinese Government did not even bother to consult the citizens in Hong Kong about the whole issue of 1997. This naturally contravened the first Article of both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Again, all Hong Kong citizens were kept in the dark throughout the negotiations between Britain and China from 1982 to 1984.
This is what Micah, an 8th Century B.C.E. prophet in the Southern Kingdom Judah, a contemporary of Isaiah advised God’s Chosen: to do justice, steadfast love and to and walk humbly with God (NJB) or “to do what is just, show constant love and to live in humble fellowship with our God.” (T.E.V. / our pew Bible).
To show constant love or steadfast love means to be in perpetual care and vigil for all the people in the receiving end.
Finally, Micah’s advice to the chosen and to us as well is to walk humbly with God (NJB) or “to live in humble fellowship with our God” (TEV).
One of the problems of the Church or those who engage in charity work is Pride. Pride can easily become a wall between peoples and between ourselves and God.
All his life Jesus has tried to show us the power of humility. The Gospel of Luke specifically mentioned baby Jesus was born in a manger and the first group of people to come to worship the Holy Infant was the shepherds who represented the common folks of the times. The Gospel of John included Jesus’ wasting his disciples’ feet – an act of utter humility – before he physically left his disciples to be crucified. Even at his death, Jesus was nailed on a cross, again a sign of extreme humility. Because of Jesus’ humility, he was able to bring the whole human race to the path of Reconciliation, with God, with each other and with oneself.
With this high note, we end this Lentern and Eastertide series of sermons on “Our Faith in God”. Our faith in God has always life implications. What shall we do concretely? This is for another series of sermons later.
Glory be God the Creator, Jesus Christ our Saviour and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.