A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 30th November 2008 by the Rev. Kwok Nai Wang, Induction Service for the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and Mark 10:35-45.
..When I first arrived at KUC some 26 months ago, I was told I made history for KUC, because I was the first local minister to be invited to serve at KUC. Not so. I never consider myself as your regular minister. I am here as your Senior Minister and mentor (that’s what’s written in the invitation letter) and I see my major task is to help map out some directions for KUC.
KUC has radically changed in the past decade or so. I remember when I first preached here some 25 years ago as the General Secretary of the HKCC, KUC was mainly an expatriate Church. Indeed all 16 ministers who have served KUC for the past 80 years were ministers from Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.A. So strictly speaking Phyllis is the first non-Caucasian minister KUC ever appointed. It is appropriate that at this very important moment, I, as her mentor and especially as a passer-by offer her a few pointers as she starts her ordained ministry at KUC.
I remember in considering whether KUC should appoint Phyllis as an ordained minister, a point of contention was that her English is not good enough for an English speaking congregation. Yes, English is not Phyllis’ mother tongue. Her spoken English might not be as fluent as our English-speaking members. But the primary purpose of language is for communication. And indeed communication is important, but communication is much more than verbal communication. Our life style or even more so our whole life is actually the best means of communication.
I also remember very vividly when I first started as a young minister (27 years old to be exact) in a local Church in a slum area in Kowloon, one Sunday afternoon as I was resting, I received a call informing me that the vice chair of the building committee suddenly dropped dead at home while he was playing mahjong. I was naturally very shocked especially because only hours before I saw him and talked with him in Church. Not knowing what to do, I went to his home. His wife was sitting on a bed weeping. I had no experience about how to comfort the bereaved. So I held her hand and said a prayer. Weeks afterwards, this lady member told me my compassion really meant a great deal to her. Later, she became a deaconess and a staunch supporter of that Church.
Another few months passed by quickly. One afternoon, a woman whom I never met called, telling me her aged mother who was a member of the Church was seriously ill, but refused to go to the hospital. In no time, I was at her home, only to find an ambulance waiting downstairs and two medics were trying to persuade the old lady to be taken by them to the hospital. Almost an hour had gone by without results. The reason why this old lady refused to go to hospital was that she as a traditional Chinese wanted to die at home; and she was convinced that she could not pull through this time. When I arrived, I tried to talk with her and assured her she was not going to die with proper medical treatment. Finally, I struck a deal with her saying if she went into the hospital, I would visit her everyday. Finally I succeeded. I did keep my promise; and this lady lived for six more years.
Then it was worldwide communion Sunday. After the service, the Council Chair and a few council members and I were having a conversation about how good it was to invite a mandarin congregation to join us for that important occasion. Suddenly, a mentally challenged person approached me and begged me to serve him Holy Communion. The Council Chair told him kindly that the service was long over; and advised him to come earlier the following month. Without any thought, I held his hand and guided him to the chancel. To everyone’s surprise, I served him the Holy Communion!
At the time when I did all this, I was only thinking about the needs of these members. My Christian presence was not only felt by those in dire need, but also many others in the years to come. Even up to this day, people still talked about those incidents and recollect how good a minister I was. Of course when I did all this, I did not think of any applause in return.
So the very first lesson for a local church minister is to stand present to the person in crisis in the first possible moment disregarding the consideration of whether it is convenient or not.
One time a college student came to see me late at night without prior notice. She wanted to talk with me about the Christian faith. Immediately I sensed she was having a serious problem. I listened patiently and tried from time to time clarify the situation she was plunged into. Her problem was that her boy friend had just left her. After a long conversation, she felt much relieved. When we had finished, I looked at my watch, it was almost 3 in the morning. Then I walked her home, climbed the stairs to the 9th floor where she lived and went home myself. “Calculating” is one consideration ministers must avoid. We cannot calculate whether to spend 6 hours with a person in crisis was worth the while. Ministering unto people is always time consuming; and may not show any results in the short time. That is why most ministers would rather spend time to take care of administrative affairs, projects, buildings and programs!
To be ministers worthy of Christ’s calling, we are on call 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
One very cold early morning while I was still in bed, my phone rang. A parishioner called and sobbingly told me her husband just passed away. In no time, I got dressed, jumped on a taxi and hurried to Princess Margaret Hospital. There I saw her with her two little children. She got completely lost; didn’t know what to do. It was because the whole thing came so suddenly. After a few words of comfort and a prayer, I talked with her about funeral arrangements, etc. The following days, I spent quite a bit of time helping her. This happened some 35 years ago, but even up to this day, we still keep in touch and not too long ago she invited me and Dorothy to her 70th birthday dinner. Present at the occasion were her 2 sons and daughters-in-law. She would retell her children how grateful the whole family was for my assistance. This lady has become an iron lady, fully dedicated to her teaching, her children as well as to the Church.
So, Phyllis, the primary task for a minister is to serve people with your heart. Secondly, you must serve them with your mind as well.
A minister is called to lead. “All of us were like sheep that were lost, each going his/her own way”, so says Prophet Isaiah (53:6). The minister of a local church is called not only to nurture and unite the congregation, but to guide them in the right path too!
By definition, all Christians are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ or we are the little Christs, so to speak. As little Christs, we all must learn to become like Jesus – especially his life style of sacrificial love, the absolute obedience to God and the emptying of himself for the sake of the people with unfulfilled life. But first the minister has to take the initial step. In the Anglican tradition, a local church minister is called a vicar. It is because he/she represents Jesus to serve the sheep which God has given to his/her charge. More than that, ministers are called by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue Jesus’ earthly ministry. Besides preaching the Gospel, teaching, healing the sick, Jesus also spent lots of time with his disciples.
Here lies one of the mysteries of Jesus’ ministry. He worked with his disciples and commissioned them to continue his ministry after his ascension. Phyllis, you must labour tirelessly to build up the leadership or rather the servants of the servants at KUC so that KUC does not have only one, but a group of lay ministers to serve the congregation and beyond. The ministerial group which was started in June 2007 must be continued at all cost.
KUC needs a vision, because where there is no vision, the people go asunder (Prob. 29:18).
When I arrived at Sham Oi Church in Shek Kip Mei, the oldest resettlement area in Hong Kong, the congregation was rather inward looking and self-serving. Members were preoccupied with moving into a new church building; pondering how to increase the membership, how to re-organize themselves, etc. etc. I envisaged that in order to be a Church of God in that slum area, Shum Oi Church had to be turned inside out. It had to become a neighbourhood Church. So with a few dedicated members, we worked towards that direction. I have left that Church for 31 years. People to-day are still talking about the vision of Shum Oi Church. Many local churches have adopted the spirit of the vision and created their own vision.
In the Reformed tradition, ministers pay a great deal of attention to the preaching of the Word of God. Their ministry centres around the pulpit. For the Baptist tradition, the centre of ministry is on the people. Baptist ministers’ primary job is to be pastors to the members. For the more traditional churches, like the Roman Catholic and the Anglican, ministers are called priests. Their centre of ministry is the altar. Phyllis, I suggest you embrace all the three traditions. You are not only the pastor (as you came from the Baptist tradition); the minister of God’s Word (this is KUC); but also the priest. As a priest, you primary concern is to bring people to God through worship. As the priest, you must help people to refocus their life on God.
Phyllis, you must also look at where your mentor failed in his ministry. I was told time and again that I am a minister of utter seriousness. But also I am square and impatient. I have given myself 100% to my ministry, but my first marriage and my health have taken a heavy toll. Phyllis, while you must take your ministry seriously, you must also remember 3 “R”s – namely rest, recreation and reflection. Regular physical exercise is a “must”. You should also spend lots of time to read and reflect. All ministers should be theologians. A theologian is a person who reflects what’s going on theologically. Last of all, you must find time to be with your family.
Phyllis, you have plunged into a humanly impossible vocation. But my golden verse to you on this auspicious occasion is “Not by your might, nor your power; but by the power of the Holy Spirit”. (Zech 4:6). Prayers should also be another centre of your ministry.
Now a few words for the congregation. Minister of a local church is probably the most difficult vocation on earth. Even for a small congregation like KUC, you have some 70 members. 70 members have 70 minds and therefore may have 70 different opinions on any issue. But members, you must try to be concerned on vital issues and forget trivialities. Oftentimes, it is trivialities which divide the congregation which in turn make the life of your minister miserable.
You must not treat Phyllis as an invited guest, much less an employee. No. Phyllis is Christ’s servant who decides to be here to serve you so that in turn you can serve the world more relevantly and effectively. Phyllis deserves your full trust and support.
However the minister, however the congregation. But the reverse is also true. I have had three major positions in my life: minister of a local church; head of the HKCC and HK Christian Service; founder and director of HKCI. By general recognition, I have made significant contributions in all three positions. The major reason was that the board or executive committee of these organizations have given me full confidence and co-operation.
This world is in turmoil. Natural disasters and personal mishaps; wars and conflicts happen almost on a daily basis. As God’s servants on earth, we must try to respond. Let KUC, with one heart, under the leadership of Phyllis and Jelita, your council chair, derives a plan of action.
Glory be to God, the Creator; to Jesus Christ our Saviour and to the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.