A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 26 September 2010 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 146; Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
Dear God of trinity, may Your word inspire us and Your loving wisdom dwells in us. Amen.
The ever widening income gap has become a great concern to many people in the community of Hong Kong as well as around the world. Such inequality is measured by what is called “the Gini coefficient” according to which a value of zero expresses total equality, and a value of 100 maximal inequality. Let me share with you some figures. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, the Gini index is 43.4 for Hong Kong and 46.9 for China, compared with 24.9 for Japan, 33.7 for Switzerland and 36 for United Kingdom.
In Hong Kong, over 510,000 workers currently earn less than HK$6,000. They are the lowest earners. Over the past ten years, 30% of working labors not only did not receive any increase in wages, but there was actually reduction of salary.
Recently I saw some pictures that reveal the seriousness of the wealth gap problem. A huge amount of food which had been provided for a few rich people was piled up like a hill. This amount of food cannot be consumed by them, and it ends up in the rubbish bin. What a waste of food! This is at a time when the world’s poorest are starving--women and men, young and old. You can see the bones under their skins, they are so thin and malnourished. The contrast of the wealthiest and poorest world is stunning, disturbing and distressing.
The widening income gap and increasing number of poor people is a concern to many people across the board and a concern to the government that rules the society. The poor people are concerned about it because they are directly affected and suffer a lot from their plight. The rich people are concerned about it because they are afraid that there would be negative sentiment or even an antagonism against the wealthy on the part of the poor masses. The government is concerned about it because serious income disparity will cause social instability that would jeopardize their rule. They have to bear a strong political risk.
How about the Church, my friends in Christ? Is the widening income gap a concern of the Church?
Widening income gap is a concern of the church
Today’s gospel story about the rich man and the poor man well illustrates the issue of the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The impoverished Lazarus was obviously suffering from abject poverty and hunger. He was not only deprived of food to sustain his life, he suffered from sickness caused by malnutrition. He had, of course, lost weight. But in the eyes of society and probably he himself (but not in the eyes of God), he had even lost his basic human dignity. The main evilness of wealth disparities is to be found in the degradaton of the poor. They don’t have enough to support their basic daily life. The right for food to keep one’s life is so basic for every human being.
In Hong Kong, as there is a basic safety net provided by the government. Thanks to the comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA), no person will go hungry like Lazarus. The poor will get some support to maintain their basic living. Truly, there may not be many cases of people starving to death in Hong Kong. However, the poverty has driven many poor people into difficult lives. They may look down upon themselves—a phenomenon for which society bears some responsibility. It is not uncommon to hear people’s negative comments against the welfare recipients--complaints that they are lazy and too dependent on government handouts. In fact, there are many poor people in Hong Kong who want nothing more than to stand on their own feet and work.
But very unfortunately, the wage for many low skilled jobs is very low. Can you imagine a woman who works as a full time cleaner in a public housing estate earns less than HK$4,000 per month? I know of one who is trying to support two daughters and a husband suffering from chronic illness? This woman feels helpless and defeated. Her case reflects only the tip of the iceberg.
In Hong Kong, there are many such working poor. They have been living in a de-humanizing situation. I have read about a young man saying, “Because I am poor, I have no choice but am obliged to live in an over-crowded small cubicle which is dangerous but expensive.” I have also heard a domestic helper say “because I am poor and I have very little bargaining power, I have to tolerate the unjust treatment by the employer and the employment agency.” “What to do when you are poor?” When the poor people become non-persons with neither respect from others nor self-respect, they seem to have lost the basic God-given human dignity. This is very sad indeed.
The unparallel disparities between the super-rich and the poor who are deprived of basic necessity, has reflected a kind of self-interest without compassion for others. The rich man in today’s biblical story was punished with a stay in Hades and he suffered physical pain. In the conversation with Abraham after the rich man’s death, he was judged by his selfishness, his lack of compassion for the needy. This man had turned a blind eye to the plight of poor Lazarus. He did not care about him at all, and abandoned him to a poor and undignified life.
The huge wealth gap still results in disrespect of and discrimination against the poor. Sometimes the poor are even held in contempt. People are segregated and ranked accordingly to their level of wealth. This is absolutely against God’s original conception, according to which every human being as equal, having been created in God’s holy image. The income disparity has created a break in the inter-connectedness of human beings. The mutuality of all humanity is forgotten. This alienation of human relationship is a grave sin.
God reminds us, through the rich man and Lazarus, that we need to restore compassion for others. When we have a heart for others, we will have higher possibility to share with others of what we have and to give more generously.
“Have compassion for others” sounds like a very easy message. But the reality is that even when people have more, they rarely share with others in need so as to make the distribution more even!
The wealth gap reflects the accumulation of money and resources by a handful of people. When people are more in love of money than with anything else, they try by all means to earn and accumulate their money for is own sake. The love of money reflects human greed, a sin of greed.
In 1 Timothy 6:10, it says ‘For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. In this apostle’s letter of 1 Timothy 6:6-19, the author was addressing the false teaching of the Christian community in the early church context. In this way was the issue of money and wealth then addressed.
In our world today, we do also face a kind of false teaching about ‘market forces’ in the contemporary economic system. The teaching of our market driven economy is that we need to keep our competitiveness. To maximize profit and make more money is the golden rule of the market mechanism in our economic operation. The market economy has justified the love of money and legitimized the underlying greed. This greed and love of money has to be understood both from a personal and a structural point of view.
Li Ka Shing, one of the wealthiest tycoons from Hong Kong, once said that, “ a righteous man who loves money, earns with integrity.” 「君子好財 取之有道」Do you believe that?
In our contemporary economic and financial system, money has taken on a life of its own. Money is no longer just a medium of exchange. Money has become a commodity, from which more and larger profit are expected. Individual and structural greed feed on, and mutually reinforce, each other.
To combat the problem of income disparity or the wealth gap, we have to be aware of this structural greed. The unjust system perpetuates the uneven distribution of wealth. From the point of view of faith, this is structural sin that we need to repent. The whole unjust and inhuman system needs to be redeemed by our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In a society with a wide wealth gap, and where structural greed prevails, the vulnerable and the weak, often including children, the women, the elderly, the new immigrants, the sick, and low-status foreigners suffer most. At the same time, our mother earth is damaged and suffering too. Through Psalm 146, our Lord speaks to us and reminds us that God who created the heaven and earth was compassionate with the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. God cares for the poor who deserve good life and dignity, as they are also God’s children.
God has and will continue to deliver the oppressed, the hungry and the sick from captivity and pain. Our God loves justice and disregard wickedness.
God has called upon the church to do the will of God – execute justice, and to love kindness, by following the footstep of Jesus Christ, our Lord and the redeemer of the world.
So yes, the widening income gap is definitely a concern of the church today. The mission of the church today is to lead a spiritual life by challenging the market-driven ideology.
Instead of thinking of money as the ultimate vlaue, and private ownership of wealth as success, we have to do our best to cultivate a spirit of true richness, which is driven by love, compassion and generosity. The great gain of life is in godliness combined with contentment.
The good news—the promise of a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, by sharing of what we have with others and being contented in what have been given, is God’s message for our world today. The Church plays an important role in this as Christ’s faithful witness on earth.
The church is required also to demonstrate solidarity with the poor and collaborate with other concerned groups, to try every effort to subvert greed and develop alternatives that are life-giving and sustaining for all.
Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to join in prayers and actions to create a loving and compassionate world where we share God’s gift equally with joy and dignity. I trust that, by doing this, our praises and worship to God is acceptable and a delight to our Lord. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 5 September 2010 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33.
Triune God, open our hearts to hear your words and lead us to understand your truth. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You. Amen.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” The first time I read today’s gospel account about Jesus’ tough demand to His disciples was a long time ago -- over twenty years. This may be one of the most disturbing texts that we come across. How can a loving God ask His disciples to hate those who are close to them?
From what we have known about Jesus’ words and deeds as revealed in the gospels and the apostles’ letters, He was hardly such an unkind and hate-provoking person. Therefore, we need to read the teaching of Jesus in context and to examine the translation of the words.
What has been rendered in English as “hate” is a translation of the Greek word mesei, which in this context really meant ‘disregard, be indifferent to’. “Hate” in this context is not a call to develop an intense dislike for family members, it is a comparative statement. Jesus is not really calling on His followers to hate their father and mother, but is instead calling them to a commitment above all other commitments, including commitment to family. If they want to be His disciples, they are asked to give priority to Jesus. Disciples should bear the cross like Jesus.
In the context of Jesus’ time and the early years of the church, being a Christian was never easy. As we know from the experiences of apostles like Peter, Paul and Stephen (just to name a few), and of course of Jesus Himself, being Christian was extremely costly. Not only were the believers excluded and isolated from their mainstream community, they might be even persecuted to death. Therefore, from the beginning Jesus gave no sweet words and promises. He simply reiterated His demand to those who wanted to follow Him and became His disciples.
Jesus demanded His followers’ commitment if they decided to become His disciples. Jesus was talking to a crowd and not just His close friends. What Jesus required was commitment on the part of His followers, he sought disciples who would give their life and service to Him.
Jesus asked His followers to make Him the priority in life. Commitment is crucial because we may face different kinds of tensions and struggles in our path of joining Jesus’ mission and ministry. This is a very tough and challenging demand for the followers of Jesus. The demand from Jesus obviously poses great tension to the followers. A few months ago when I attended a friend’s ordination service, he almost cried when he acknowledged his family support to him and felt guilty that, because of his chosen career path, he would not be fully available when they needed him. I share that sentiment.
Mother Theresa, one of the faithful and humble servants of God that I respect so much, loved God and devoted her whole life to serve the poor in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. She left her Albanian family and went overseas to serve. She started the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, to serve the poorest of the poor, the sick and the dying. Even though she had a strong calling to serve in India, she faced a lot of objections from her own Catholic community at the beginning when she shared her vision with the spiritual fathers to start the ministry in Calcutta. Without strong commitment and taking Jesus as the first priority, Mother Theresa would never have been able to move ahead with her ground breaking but very meaningful ministry for the poor in India, and for God.
Jesus’ direct confrontation to His followers to pay the cost and take up the cross by all means, may appeal to all. Like it or not, Jesus’ teaching did help us to have some spiritual reflection. Jesus’ notion of bearing the cross and paying the cost for God’s sake has challenged us to avoid being a ‘spiritual consumer’ in the faith community. I use to hear people inviting friends to church by saying their children would learn good morals and they would benefit in this way or that. To hear God’s words of comfort, to enjoy friendship and receive blessing from God and so on are all good things. This is the grace of God fills in the faith community, to reveal His love and care to people. Yet, believers have to be transformed to become faithful disciples and learn to love God in return and follow the good deeds of Jesus Christ, model of our servant Lord on earth as a witness to Him.
We are not just takers, and certainly not mere spiritual consumers in church, here to receive the loving grace of God for free. Our incarnated Lord who liberates our life has put out a call to us.
I remember a time when I was back in Hong Kong from England after I finished my masters program in education. I found it difficult to fit in when I went back to my mother church. I began to search for another church. After several months, I could not find one in which I felt perfectly satisfied. One day when I prayed, the Holy Spirit inspired me to think I should stop looking for a church that satisfied my needs and met my expectations. God taught me that I should engage in a congregation to which I could contribute and help develop for God’s sake. I should participate in a church to give but not to take. Inspired by God’s spirit, I stopped ‘shopping for a church’. Eventually, I decided to stay in my home church. I began to take up a more active role to serve in different areas. Truly, I still faced frustration and disappointment on and off in church. Now and then I have thought of giving up and just walking away. Thank God for Her/His on-going love and encouragement that helps me to struggle and overcome difficulties. “To take Jesus as our priority in life” means, among other things, that we will go back to Him and seek His companionship and encouragement whenever we find the cross is too heavy to bear. Jesus Christ our Lord underwent this tough journey. He suffered, died and was resurrected. We are able to survive all these challenges when our lives are deeply engaged in Him, for Him and with Him. Jesus Christ our redeemer will never forsake His faithful.
In my ‘shopping for a church’ experience, I learnt one more thing. We should not wait passively and just let things happen. Instead, we should do our best according to God’s will to make things happen. Like the parable that Jesus said in the gospel account of costly discipleship: If someone needs to build a tower, he/she has to estimate the cost. Or if a king wishes to wage a war, he needs to calculate the chance of success. The emphasis of the parables is not about whether we have enough resource to build the tower or to wage the war. What is important is our preparation and efforts to achieve the goal, in other words to fulfill the calling of God. The teaching about estimating the cost also gives us a lesson about our full understanding of our potential and limitations. We need to know our strengths, limitations and be aware of our ignorance. As a Chinese proverb said, ‘If we have a better understanding of ourselves and others, we will win every battles.’ (知己知彼，百戰百勝)
At the end of the parable, Jesus emphasized that none of them could become His disciple if they did not give up everything. The essence of giving up of everything here is to recognize that God has claim on all areas. God has access to all we are. God therefore, should be the centre of all of a disciple’s life.
When I was preparing this sermon, it struck me that the renovation of our Manse at No. 2 Jordan Road illustrates this passage. We need to estimate the cost. We need good preparation and planning for this project. We need to have a clear understanding of ourselves which includes our past, our present and our future. We need to take up a strong sense of responsibility to complete the task for God and for the community. We cannot just start something but leave it unfinished.
Whatever we do for the building, we do it for God. For everything is from God. The responsibility of the congregation is to take up a proactive role and serve as God’s faith stewards. The Manse is dilapidated and cannot wait any longer for its renovation. When we estimate the cost of renovating the building, we need to think also how are we going to use of the space for fulfilling the God’s will and mission in our community in Hong Kong.
The challenges ahead require of us a clear vision and mind, a commitment to take up the responsibility, a spirit of unity to face different views, and a fearless heart to overcome all difficulties, the courage to make the right decisions and bear the consequence to achieve the goal for God’s glory. We cannot achieve all these unless we are committed and ready to take up this costly discipleship with Christ, in Christ and for Christ.
Jesus does not make discipleship easy. He does not offer an easy payment plan. He never tries to disguise the cost of discipleship. Instead, he writes the price tag large for all to see.
But if we are willing to go through a tough and difficult journey with Jesus Christ, our lives will be enriched and developed in more depth. Our lives will not be the same.
The life, the death and His resurrection of Jesus Christ has given us hope and possibility.
We need committed disciples in our congregation to serve the Kingdom of God together. Jesus through His words challenged us to give more, to give everything to Him if we want to be His true disciples.
Sisters and brothers, would you respond to God that you are willing to bear the cross of Jesus Christ and follow Him faithfully?
Our God of life and love,
Grant us the courage to face all kinds of challenges, tensions and difficulties when we choose to become your faithful disciples. Strengthen our minds and hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, to bear Jesus Christ’s costly cross for your service and glory. Amen.