A sermon preached at Kowloon Union
Church on Sunday 26 May 2013 by Bruce Van Voorhis. The scripture readings that
day were Deuteronomy 15:1–11; Psalm 12:1–8; 1 Corinthians 3:1–11, 16–17 and Matthew 26:6–13.
Spirit of love and compassion,
Spirit of justice and peace, may the meditations of my heart, of my mind and of
my spirit be acceptable and pleasing to you, and may they be a faithful witness
to the wisdom you have gifted to us. In your Son’s name, we pray. Amen.
Like the 19th century novel by Charles Dickens—A Tale of Two Cities—that inspired
today’s sermon title—“A Tale of Two Poverties”—my message this morning
is also about the poor. While Dickens was depicting the destitute in Paris and London
and their respective countries around the time of the French Revolution in
1789, today’s sermon will be closer to home in both time and space.
As well as this work by Dickens, another inspiration for today’s
topic is found in our Gospel reading this morning, specifically verse 11 of
Matt. 26 and the phrase “for you always have the poor with you.” As we know
from reading the whole passage this morning, Jesus utters these words to rebuke
his disciples for their criticism of the woman for pouring expensive ointment
on Jesus’ head as a way of expressing her respect and admiration for him. The
appearance of this story, not only in the Book of Matthew, but also in the
Gospels of Mark and John indicate that it was an important story for those who chronicled
the life and ministry of Jesus, and, indeed, it is the last story recorded of
Jesus’ ministry before Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. This morning’s
Gospel reading also may be familiar to you as it was the basis of Hope and Roy’s sermons during Lent
I have always had problems, however, with this passage, or at least
the phrase that I read—”for you always have the poor
with you”—because it seems like Jesus is condemning some
people to a life of poverty and that, no matter how hard one tries, there will
always be poor people. A similar sentiment is expressed in a portion of our Old
Testament reading today as well regarding the Year of Jubilee every seven years;
for in Deut. 15:11, it is stated that “for the poor will never cease out of the
land.” The reality, of course, is that from Biblical times to 18th century France and England in Dickens’s novel to our
own era there have undeniably always been the poor among us. But does it have
to be so, and is it the will of God?
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that my trouble with this passage
is not the phrase itself, but rather, it is the way this phrase has been used
periodically over the years by some Christians to justify poverty, for I have
heard and read from time to time this phrase used to pacify the poor by telling
them not to worry about their impoverished lives in this world as they will
experience joy in the next world when they die. Other scriptures used to
express a similar viewpoint are the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus says in
chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs
is the kingdom of heaven.” I have no doubt that the poor will, indeed, enjoy
the love of God and the pure joy of heaven, but my difficulty with the use of
the phrase “for you always have the poor with you” by some Christians today is that it is used at times to keep the poor
silent, to curtail any attempt by the poor and others who seek to eliminate or
at least minimize poverty from taking any action to bring about social change.
It is used, in effect, to justify poverty by some Christians today, to make
poverty appear to be a normal part of life as if it is a natural phenomenon
instead of a man-made social construction.
believe, however, that this is the intent of Jesus based on his ministry for
the poor and oppressed and against injustice, and it is not the overall message
that one takes away after reflecting on the stories and teachings of the Bible
in both the Old and New Testaments. Rather, the words of the Bible are filled
with the love of God for all people, announcing that everyone is equal, that
every person is a child of God. Thus, God would never intend for people to
suffer from the economic violence of poverty that strips them every day of
their human dignity and negates their identity as a child of God. Naturally,
when one reads the whole passage and not just the phrase “for you always have the poor with you,” it is clear that Jesus is simply
rebuking the comments of his disciples, as has already been pointed out, and is
not condoning poverty.
This long explanation, which is probably too long and hopefully
unnecessary, does alert us, however, to the danger of lifting out only one or
two verses of scripture, or, as in this case, merely a phrase, as a
justification for what, in reality, is our economic, social or political views.
It is imperative that we read the verses preceding and following the quoted
scriptures in order to understand the context and clarify the intended meaning
of the Biblical message as best we can. Otherwise, the Bible potentially becomes
just a perverted source to support our point of view.
As you know, our sermon topic today is about two forms of poverty.
We have already discussed the first form—material or physical
poverty—that in 2008 afflicted nearly 1.4 billion people, or about 24 percent
of the world’s population, according to the United Nations Development Program
(UNDP), based on an income of less than US$1.25 per day.
however, the second form of poverty?
with our previous discussion of material or physical poverty affecting people’s
livelihood, housing, health and education needs, etc., let us continue to focus
on the phrase “for you always have the poor with you”
in Matt. 26:11. Let us change though the reference of the word poverty from one’s economic and social
well-being to one’s spiritual well-being—a change in perception
that was suggested by my former colleague from India, Jose Varghese, during a
reflection prior to one of our staff meetings at the Asia and Pacific Alliance
of YMCAs (APAY) a couple of years ago. In doing so, I
can accept, and I hope you can too, that, indeed, we will always have the poor
with us in the spiritual sense, for it is not easy to become spiritually rich.
It takes a great deal of time, energy and effort that most of us are not
willing to exert.
We only need
to scrutinize our present world to assess our spiritual health today, for I
believe that the state of our world is a reflection of the state of our
collective spiritual health as well.
our earlier conversation about material poverty, not only is approximately
one-quarter of the world’s population classified as economically and socially
poor, but there is an ever widening chasm between the rich and the poor with a
report released this past week by Oxfam noting that the rich have hidden at
least US$18.5 trillion in tax havens around the world, resulting in the loss of
more than US$156 billion in tax revenue for governments worldwide. The
international development agency Oxfam adds that this sum in lost tax revenue—US$156
billion—is twice the amount required
for every person in the world to live above the extreme poverty threshold of
US$1.25 per day. Is this a reflection of a spiritually healthy world?
other related economic news this past week about income disparity, it was
reported that the average pay of CEOs in America last year was US$9.7
million. This figure, I repeat, is their average
salary—a sum that is 350 times more than the pay of the average U.S. worker in
distribution of income in Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong government, the
Gini coefficient, a scale measuring income distribution with 0 indicating perfect
equality and 1denoting total inequality, stood at .537 in 2011—one of the
highest levels of income inequality among developed economies in the world and
a status that Hong Kong has consistently achieved over the years. Is this a
result for which we in Hong Kong should be
At the global
level, we can perhaps better understand and comprehend these abstract
statistics, how they were achieved and what they reflect regarding our scrutiny
of our spiritual health by recalling the recent tragic incident of the garment
factory workers in Bangladesh.
You will remember that on April 24 the nine-story Rana
Plaza near the capital of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. It was
a news story that did not need to happen. The day prior to the structure’s
collapse cracks had been discovered in the building, but the building owner,
who is reportedly well connected to the country’s ruling political party, and
the owners of the five garment factories in building were indifferent to the
safety of the structure, and the workers were told the next morning to go to
work and produce garments for some of the world’s leading Western clothing
retailers. Moreover, this fatal episode had been preceded by a factory fire in
November last year at Tazreen Fashion that took the lives of at least 112
employees. Locked exits and the decision of factory managers that workers
should continue working when the fire alarm went off contributed to this
tragedy. Most of the victims in both deadly incidents were women workers from
the rural areas of the country who had migrated to the capital to make a better
life for themselves and their families. They were members of the working poor
in a country where the minimum wage is about US$37 per month and their labor
generates US$20 billion per year for the garment industry in Bangladesh.
defects and inadequate escape routes are some of the discernible causes of
these calamities, I believe a major invisible contributing factor to these
needless deaths is greed. The owners and managers of these factories worship
the god of money rather than respect the value of life. Money, revenue, profits
were more important to them than the workers who generated the money, revenue
and profits for them and their companies.
misplaced priorities are not confined to these two events. Land-grabbing, or
forced evictions, in the name of development rob typically poor families of
their land, homes and livelihood in many parts of Asia, such as Cambodia
where it is a perpetual problem. Those who acquire the land reap sizeable
wealth while those who lose their land must find the means to dig themselves
out from ever deeper levels of poverty. Meanwhile, social and political
activists in the Philippines, including members of the clergy and church
workers, have been the victims of thousands of extrajudicial killings and
hundreds of disappearances in the past nine years because they have challenged those
who wield political and economic power in the country. For questioning the
policies and actions of the elite, they have lost their lives.
corruption is also almost a pandemic in both the public and private sectors of
our Asian societies. It is such an entrenched part of the fabric of life in so
many parts of our region that people encounter it almost every day and come to
view it as a normal feature of daily life.
this addiction to corruption is what are portrayed as free and fair democratic
elections in many Asian countries, especially in South and Southeast Asia, that
are too frequently not free nor fair and are commonly marred by violence, such
as Pakistan’s May 11 elections in which more than 100 people were killed during
the campaign and on election day. Unfortunately, elections in many Asian
countries are more about serving one’s private good rather than the public
good; they are more about gaining seats of political power in order to have channels
to corruption that inflate one’s bank account than they are about proposing and
implementing policies that serve the people who elected them. With so much at
stake, violence becomes an acceptable electoral practice to achieve one’s
I could go on
and on about the spiritual poverty of our world—the gang rape of a university
student on a bus in New Delhi in December, violence between Buddhists and
Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka in the past year, the shooting of students and
their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, in the United States in also December
and just days ago the brutal killing of a British soldier, not on a
battlefield, but on the streets of a London suburb. The psalmist today has,
indeed, accurately depicted our world in the last verse of Psalm 12: “On every side, the wicked prowl as vileness is exalted among the
sons of men and women.”
All of these
incidents are different and take place in different parts of the world,
although I have used mainly examples from Asia
because they are closer to our consciousness and concern. However, what unites
them, I believe, is that the underlying cause of these issues is money as the
motivating factor in life and violence as a means to decide conflicts. In short,
they reflect our collective spiritual poverty. Our relationship with God, with
a Divine Being, has been ruptured; our egos have gone wild; life is no longer
precious; people are no longer children of God.
How and where
then do we change, transform, our societies, our world?
For me, the
answer begins with the face reflected in the mirror every morning—with me—and
with those to whom I relate—today with you.
We can take
inspiration and direction from our epistle reading today in 1 Cor. 3:1–11:
“But I, brothers and sisters, could not address you as
spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you
with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it, and even yet you are
not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and
strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving like ordinary people? For
when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apol’los,’ are you
not merely men and women?
“What then is Apol’los? What is Paul? Servants through
whom you believed as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apol’los watered,
but God gave the growth. So neither the person who plants nor the person who
waters is anything but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the
one who waters are equal, and each shall receive their wages according to their
labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a
skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and another person is building
upon it. Let each person take care how they build upon it. For no other
foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
From this passage, we see that we each have a role to play, a role that
may be different from the person next to us based on our talents and skills,
but there is a part for you and for me in God’s plan to construct a different
world than the present one. As the scripture notes, we are all “God’s fellow
workers.” What unites us in this endeavor is God.
To better prepare ourselves as “God’s fellow workers,” we may turn
to the practice of meditation—a part of the mystic tradition of our Christian
faith that has largely been forgotten for several hundred years. The remainder of
our epistle lesson this morning—verses 16 and 17 of chapter 3 of 1 Corinthians—reminds
us that the Holy Spirit is present within each of us: “Do
you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If
anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy,
and that temple you are.” God invites us to come home to the Divine in us, and
meditation is merely a means of communicating, of listening, to the Divine Spirit that yearns to be our companion
in life. We simply need to remove the obstruction that is our ego that likes to
block our path to God in us.
By now, you may be wondering how to meditate? Can I meditate? Will
God listen to me, which should be rephrased differently: Will I listen to God?
As for meditating, it is as simple as breathing; for whether you
follow the Christian practice of someone like the Benedictine monk John Main or
the Zen Buddhist tradition of a teacher such as Thich Nhat Hanh, who happens to
be offering a series of retreats and lectures at this time in Hong
Kong, you can meditate. Meditation only requires a quiet place,
the awareness of your breath by focusing on a word or phrase and your
commitment and time.
When we meditate, we are giving ourselves wholly to the Holy Spirit,
to God within us. In the silence, we are giving God an opportunity to speak to
us. We are listening. We are allowing God to guide us. We are surrendering
ourselves to God. In these moments, we
become more joined to God as “God’s fellow worker.”
Through this process, we begin to erode the spiritual poverty within
us. Our relationship with God and with each other begins to become transformed.
By connecting our being closer with the source of love and life, by
encountering the divine within us, our own sense of love is heightened; our
reverence for life is deepened.
By addressing the spiritual poverty that we each bear, we are better
equipped to attend to the material poverty and violence in our world that we
have described earlier. By transforming ourselves, we have taken the first step
toward transforming our societies, to accepting no longer the life-denying acts
that sadly occur too frequently and to take action through our words and deeds
to bring about life-affirming changes. It is the challenge that God gives to each
of us as Christians.
The words of Phap Kham, the leader of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist
community in Hong Kong, are important to
understanding why and how deepening our spirituality contributes to responding
to the economic and social poverty of our societies and the world.
“When water in the pond is clear,” he says, “we can see the bottom
clearly; but when a herd of buffaloes stamp and stir up the mud, the water
becomes murky, and no one can see through it. It’s important to be clam before
we can seek solutions to problems.”
As we meditate, let us breathe in the love and compassion, the justice
and peace, the wisdom and grace, of the Holy Spirit. May we hold it and let it
fill our souls, fill our being. When we exhale, let us breathe out the love and
compassion, justice and peace, wisdom and grace, of the Holy Spirit that we
have received through our words and deeds in the world to make the Reign of God
a reality in our world today. The physical poverty of our world is not
inevitable, and it is not God’s will that it be so. We are “God’s fellow worker” in making this
social change a reality. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon
Union Church on Sunday 12 May 2013 by the Rev. Ewing W. [Bud] Carroll, Jr. The
scriptures reading that day were Isaiah 32:16-20; Romans 8:1-11 and John 14:27
Many of you old timers at KUC
remember when the Amity Foundation’s [TAF] Hong Kong
office was in your church balcony. On
one visit to a small farm village high up in the mountains of Southwest
China. TAF discovered the villagers’ need for some kind of power
supply. Generations of farm families had
no electricity. Their closest water source was a two-hour walk back and forth –
carrying two buckets of water on a [biandan] a long pole over one’s shoulders.
TAF helped local villagers install a source of electricity and a water pump. Then local and nearby officials were invited
to a ribbon-cutting ceremony, that included firecrackers and plates of
specially prepared food. As the county
mayor, the most honored guest, pulled the switch to start the motor ----
nothing; silence; embarrassment. Then a
little girl cried out, “I know the problem.” But all the adults told her to be quiet. You know, “children are to be seen, not
heard.” With tears streaming down
her face she cried again, “But I know the problem.” Then the village chief shouted out,
something like “OK, little miss know everything,” what’s the problem.” Without saying a word, she walked over to the
wall, picked up the extension cord and plugged it into the wall socket. Immediately, there was the sound of a purring
motor and gurgling water. Connected
with the source of power, the water began to flow.
I believe that’s what Paul’s
was telling the church in Rome: ”To set the mind on the flesh is death,
but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” As we celebrate Asia
Sunday today, we are challenged and invited to be God’s agents of peace. To somehow better understand what it means to
be connected to God’s Spirit. Paul’s own
experience proved that seeking to live in the power of the Holy Spirit helps
connect us to the problems and possibilities of being peacemakers - not peace-breakers.
I know this isn’t Christmas
Eve, but isn’t it a bit strange that “Silent Night” is such a popular Christmas
song: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Birth in a cowshed? Wishful thinking? Today’s Holy Land,
birthplace of Christ, remains a hotbed of hatred, violence and discord. International trafficking of women into sex
slavery is growing; increased population growth also means growing global
hunger. Dozens of wars in Africa are being fought by child soldiers. When asked ‘What would you like to be when
you are eighteen?” their response is “Alive.” So-called advanced industrial nations need
for oil sparks controversies of all sorts; and natural and human-created
disasters seem to be non-stop. All is
calm? All is bright?” Ah, you ask,
“How we are called to live in a world of peace – not a world of pieces –
fragmented, divided, torn apart, with seeming little opportunity for the peace
of Christ.” Two words come to mind.
The first word is transformation. In today’s reading from the Hebrew
Scriptures, Isaiah was calling the people of Israel – to ‘return” to
“repent”. Words we modern Christians
often find uncomfortable. But Isaiah
makes it pretty clear: that if there is to be a world of peace, the first step
involves commitment, not complacency; involvement not avoidance.
In Romans 12, Paul writes: “present you bodies as a living sacrifice, holy
and acceptable to God…Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed
by the renewing of your minds…”
We often think peace means a
world where there is no war; no arguments; no disagreements; no nagging wife;
no husband deaf to his spouse’s requests, etc.
Friends, before that happens, the roof of this church building will
collapse with snow and Jordan Road
will become a river wider than the Jordan River! No, the kind of peace Isaiah refers to and
what Paul speaks about, not to mention Jesus’ own words, “My peace I give
unto to you…” all begin with a transformation of life; a change in our
personal thoughts, attitudes and practices.
Like a U-turn going back to the
ways God intends us to live.
Recall the story of the king
who held a painting competition. He
invited artists from all around his kingdom to paint pictures of peace. There were dozens of entries, but only two
that the king considered possible winners.
The first one showed fluffy white clouds in a bright blue sky; a calm lake
that mirrored the surrounding mountains; so peaceful; a sure winner. Everyone loved it. But the king didn’t! he preferred the second one.
The second picture also had
mountains- but they were rugged and bare.
The sky was dark with heavy rain tumbling down the mountain; and
flashing lightening - like a dragon spitting from fire from its mouth. Not much peace in that. But when the king looked more closely behind
the roaring waterfalls, he saw a tiny bird nest sitting atop a small bush
growing out of a crack in a rock. There,
amidst the angry rushing waters and darkened skies and barren mountains, sat a
mother bird, nesting her babies –perfect peace.
An old Chinese saying [袖手旁观] describes someone who simply stands by the
roadside; with folded arms, doing nothing as the world passes them by. Today’s Scripture readings remind us there’s
both danger and warning in such idleness.
As people dedicated and committed to help change the world, we are
called to help find solutions, not cause more problems! Some call this idealism. I call it transformation.
The second word is trust. Jesus outgrew his Bethlehem baby bed and became the Prince of
Peace. His earthly life was far from
being calm or bright. But it was
one of great trust. Trust in God’s
presence; trust in what he saw as God’s will. Today, many people find comfort
and solace in asking “What Would Jesus Do?” Sorry, I find that absolute nonsense. We know what Jesus did.! The problem; the
challenge, is-- what will WE do.
And trust in Christ is a great place to begin.
H.G. Stafford was a Christian
businessman and writer. His business and
home were destroyed in a terrible fire.
Shortly after that, he sent his wife and four daughters on a cruise to England. Halfway across the Atlantic
Ocean, their ship collided with another ship. Twelve minutes later, the ship sunk and 230
people drown, including Stafford’s four
daughters; miraculously his wife was rescued.
A few days later, Stafford sailed to England to join his wife in
grieving the loss of their daughters. As
his ship passed near where they drown he was filled with great sadness; but no
bitterness or anger. Why? Because of his trust in God. A trust that led him to write, “When peace
like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea billows roll, whatever my
lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘it is well, it is well, with my soul’.” Friends, that’s not slurpy, squishy power of
positive thinking religion. That’s faith
from the gut. From one’s innermost
being. That's world peace when even our
own world seems to be falling apart.
I read recently about a mother
and her small child trapped in their apartment because of a blazing fire. There
seemed to be no way out. The mother
yelled for help. She heard neighbor
voices outside shouting, “We can help.
Toss your child out the window.”
She couldn’t see anything. But
with great trust she threw her child out the window. With open arms, her neighbors joyfully caught
the baby. Then she jumped and landed
safely on a large open top coat.
What tremendous trust God has
put in us – in you and me. That God
would ‘toss out’ God’s only begotten son, Jesus Christ – at such great
risk. No longer a baby wrapped in
swaddling clothes; but the man of suffering and sorrow; also God’s hope of
Today, Christ calls us, not
only to be a people of transformation and trust, but also agents of peace. Remember and live these words from one of
today’s hymns [He Came Singing Love]:
and he lived
He arose in
For the peace
to go on
we must make
it our song:
You and I be