Reflections...

Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

“A Tale of Two Poverties”

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 DickensA 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 in March.

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.

I cannot 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.

What about, however, the second form of poverty?

In keeping 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.

Returning to 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?

Moreover, in 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 2012.

Regarding the 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 proud?

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.

While structural 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.

Sadly, these 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.

Naturally, 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.

Related to 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 ambitions.

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.

How though do we begin?

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.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, May 26, 2013

 

World Peace or a World of Pieces?



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 GodDo 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 peace.

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]:

                 “He came singing peace
                  and he lived singing peace;
                  he died singing peace.
                  He arose in silence,
                  For the peace to go on
                  we must make it our song:
                  You and I be the singers.”       

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, May 12, 2013

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