Reflections...

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

“Perfect”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 23 February 2014 by the Rev. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 and Matthew 5:38-48.


Since the beginning of February, our Gospel readings have come from the book of Matthew. They’re taken from the section known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. The Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most famous passages in the New Testament like the Beatitudes which Dr John LeMond preached on, and the sayings on salt and light which Rev Phyllis spoke on a couple of weeks ago.

And today, we come to the end of Matthew Chapter 5 with Jesus’ teachings on retaliation and loving our enemies. I wouldn’t say that these are the most difficult verses to interpret in the Sermon on the Mount, but they may be are among the most controversial.

Take for instance,

39But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 

And then the real kicker – 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

When you hear these verses, what goes through your mind?

For some people, it might be ‘Are you crazy?’
For others, they might be thinking, ‘This must have some other meaning I don’t know about.’
And for yet others, ‘Well, nice in theory, but impossible in reality.’

If any of these are your thoughts, take comfort knowing that many others have struggled to make sense of these verses too. In fact, the Church throughout the ages has wrestled to understand what Jesus is teaching here and how we can live it out. 

Let’s go through these thoughts one at a time as a way of getting into this passage.

1. Are you crazy?
Something about this passage does drive us crazy. What do mean, “Don’t resist an evildoer”? Just let them do evil? If someone hits you in the face, just stand there and let them hit you again and again? And if someone takes you to court, give them everything they want and throw in some more while you’re at it? And if someone forces you to do something against your will, just keep going and double the time?

If this is what it means to be ‘perfect’ like our Heavenly Father, then let’s dispense with perfection! Maybe being ‘above average’ is good enough.

Truly, these teachings make no sense and they seem to go against common sense and human nature. It is one thing to be to victim – a victim of violence, greed, coercion – it’s altogether something else to remain a victim – to allow yourself to be abused and exploited. Of course there may be situations where a victim has no choice… either submit or die…but surely Jesus isn’t promoting passive surrender to anyone who seeks to do us harm. What kind of world would it be if no one protected the vulnerable, if no one fought for justice?

Precisely. Which brings us to thought No. 2
There must be some other meaning we don’t know about.

It’s tempting to believe if we understood the historic background of a Bible passage, everything would fall into place. In this case, it does help to know the context, though it doesn’t completely eliminate the crazy factor. But, let’s explore…

These verses from Matthew 5 use a literary device known as antithesis. Antithesis is putting two opposite statements together to show the contrast. For example, Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…’

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’ This eye and tooth formula was part of a legal system widely practiced in Jesus’ time. It meant if you caused someone to lose an eye or a tooth, then to compensate for the injury, you would lose an eye or a tooth. It seems harsh to us, but actually the law was meant to protect against excessive punishment, to protect against retribution spiraling out of control.

So if someone lost an eye due to your fault, his family couldn’t demand to chop off your head for compensation. The injury and the compensation had to match in order to be fair. You didn’t literally have to pay back with your eye or tooth, but the idea was to legislate a reasonable settlement to keep peace in the community.

In the face of this ‘reasonable’ approach to justice, Jesus teaches something completely different: non-retaliation. That means if someone treats you wrongly, don’t go seeking human justice. Don’t look for revenge. Don’t return evil for evil. Someone has to stop the cycle of hatred and violence and bloodshed, and that someone needs to be you. OK, you say, I won’t fight fire with fire, but does that mean I should sit back and let the house burn down? Surely God expects more from us than that. And indeed, God does.  

After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t resist evil.” He said, “Don’t resist evildoers” – don’t demand the right to do unto others as they have just done unto you. Instead we are called to ‘love our enemies’ – not to join them, not to enable them, but to act in ways that demonstrate a higher standard of behavior, actually the highest standard of behavior – the old WWJD – What would Jesus do?

If anything, Jesus was a realist. When he talks about turning the other cheek, giving your cloak, going the second mile, he’s using real situations that his followers faced. Remember Jesus was preaching and Matthew was writing to people living in occupied territory. They were under the thumb of the Roman Empire, and they were often victims of violence, greed and coercion. In that context, scholars point out that Jesus is not teaching passive acceptance, but rather active non-violent confrontation.  

Take for example, turning the other cheek. In those times, one of the most humiliating gestures was someone slapping you on the right cheek with the back of their hand. That’s what a superior did to an inferior, what masters did to slaves. Equals fight with their fists. So Jesus says, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn your face and give your left cheek as well. Your offender can’t slap you on that side because he’d have to use his left hand, and people back then didn’t use their left hand for touching people or food. That hand was used for ‘something else’. So by turning the other cheek, you challenge your adversary to either stop beating you or fight you as an equal.

The same with giving your cloak as well as your coat. When the poor were sued in court for non-payment of debt, they could be forced to give over their outer garment or coat.  
But the law required that you had to give back the coat at nighttime because that was their blanket for sleeping. Jesus takes this to a comic extreme, saying if the greedy sue you for the coat off your back, give them all your clothes – even your underwear – because you standing in court in your birthday suit will shame your accuser even more than you.

And what about that second mile? Under Roman occupation, soldiers could force a non-Roman citizen to carry his heavy equipment for one mile. A soldier’s gear could weigh as much as 30 kilos or 70 pounds. But the law said you couldn’t be forced to carry it more than one mile, which is precisely why Jesus may have said keep going! Don’t take off that pack! You decide how far you will carry it, not your occupier. Go beyond the requirements of this oppressive law, and see if that doesn’t make an impression on your soldier boss.

Now maybe you are feeling a bit better; thinking this is starting to make sense. But beware, because there’s more, even more than not retaliating with violence (though that would be a good start). Even more than active, non-violent confrontation (though that would be a good follow up).

In part 2, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, you need to look after the welfare of your oppressors even if they don’t look after yours. You need to desire their salvation as much as you desire your own. You need to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, because TWJD, that’s what Jesus did. And that’s how you show you are His followers. That’s how you become children of our Father in heaven. (I told you that crazy factor wasn’t going away.)

Well, then it’s probably time for response No. 3: Nice in theory, but impossible in reality.

As one friend put it, ‘I may be a Christian, but I’m not a saint.’

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even if we think we understand what Jesus is teaching, we find it very hard to put into practice.

How can you love someone who has hurt you badly, or even worse, hurt someone you love? How can you forgive and forget, when forgetting would be a worse crime than the original sin? How does all this possibly lead to repentance and reconciliation?

These questions brought to mind a story I read long ago. I couldn’t remember the exact details so I tried to find it on the internet. And lo and behold, the story came up from the 1980s. Maybe you’re familiar with it.

There was a 17 year old boy named Kevin at a New Year’s Eve party near Washington, DC. His friends noticed how much alcohol he’d been drinking, and urged him not to drive home. But he bragged, “Nothing will ever happen to me.” That night as Kevin drove home, something did happen. He lost control of his car and smashed into another car driven by a young woman named Susan. She was 18 years old. Susan died at the scene. Kevin came out of it with a few scratches.

Kevin was taken to criminal court. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and drunk driving. Because of his age and it was first offense, he was given three years’ probation and a year of community service where he’d have to give talks on the dangers of drinking and driving. But he didn’t have to go to prison. Susan’s parents then filed a civil suit asking for 1.5 million USD. There was no way that Kevin’s family could pay that, so Susan’s parents agreed to take a lesser amount, the value of his parents’ insurance policy, but under one condition.

Kevin would be required to send a check every week to Susan’s parents. The check would be made out in the name of their daughter for just $1. And he’d have to send that check every Friday for 18 years, because Susan was 18 at the time of her death and she died on a Friday. In all it would amount to $936. So obviously, the point wasn’t money.

Kevin and his family accepted this arrangement to settle the suit. But as you might expect, writing that check every week got harder and harder. A few years later, the checks stopped coming regularly. Susan’s parents took him to court. Kevin was in tears. He told the judge that he was tortured with guilt every time he wrote her name on that check, week after week, month after month, year after year. He begged to be released from the obligation, but Susan’s parents said no, and the judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail for contempt of court.

The next time he stopped sending the checks, Susan’s family sued him again. This time he brought a box of hundreds of pre-written checks going all the way to 2001, a year longer than required. Her family refused to accept them.

When reporters interviewed Susan’s family, the parents insisted they were not being vindictive. “But,” her father said, “Every time we don’t get a check, there’s only one thing that comes to our mind: He doesn’t remember.” Her mother said they wanted Kevin to get on with his life, but he had to be accountable for what he did if he really wanted to get over the guilt. In other words, we’re doing this for his good as well as our own.

What do you think? I don’t know if the families involved in this story are Christian or not. But it made me consider what would I do if I were in their shoes. What if it were my 18 year old daughter who was killed by a drunk driver? What if it were my 17 year old son drunk behind the wheel of that car? What if it were me standing in that courtroom in front of the judge?

I tell this story instead of others because it doesn’t have the happy ending we all like to read about. Yes, there are incredible stories out there of forgiveness and healing, like those we heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa or stories where a victim’s family takes a murderer into their home after he’s released from jail. Those stories do happen, but I would guess for many of us, we’re closer to sinner than saint. We still have a ways to go before we reach perfection.

And maybe that’s the message for today. We have a ways to go before we are ‘perfect,’ but we’re not expected to get there by ourselves. God gave us a community called the Church, a community whose only difference from the world is that we know we are sinners and we look to Christ for forgiveness. That’s our only advantage, but it’s enough. Maybe not enough to change the whole world, but enough to change ourselves, enough to be the kind of people God destined us to be, enough to live and move and have our being as the body of Christ.

Still, we need to be clear what is being promised here. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “The Sermon [on the Mount] does not promise that if we just love our enemies, they will no longer be our enemies. The Sermon does not promise that if we turn our right cheek, we will not be hit. The Sermon does not promise that if we simply act in accordance with its dictates, the world will be free from war. But the Christian does not renounce war because he or she can expect intelligent citizens to rally around. They usually will not. The believer takes that stand because the defenseless death of the Messiah has been revealed for all time as the victory of faith that overcomes the world.”

The defenseless death of the Messiah has been revealed for all time as the victory of faith that overcomes the world. That is the promise: That Jesus’ victory on the Cross gives you and me and the Church a fighting chance, a fighting chance that one day, Lord willing, we will become perfect in the eyes of a holy God.



# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, February 23, 2014

 

“Let Our Light Shine”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9 February 2014 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 58:111; 1 Corinthians 2:112 and Matthew 5:1320.


Opening prayer:
God of love and grace, may your Word guide us to walk in your light and truth. Inspire us to understand more deeply of your Word, and strengthen our heart to do your will.
May the word of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, my God and redeemer of the world. Amen.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus continued his teaching from the collection of verses from his Sermon on the Mount. He told the people who were listening to him that “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

Salt was valuable in Jesus’ time. It was even used as a means of exchange at the time. Salt in Latin is sal. The word salarys-a-l-a-r-yis taken from it.

Salt today is no longer expensive, but it is essential to our day-to-day life. We use it often for cooking. Salt helps our food taste better. Our body also needs it to maintain our energy and a good balance of essential minerals.

Meanwhile, light is required when we are in a dark room, and we need to do something or need to find a way out. Moreover, light, as a metaphor, has been widely used in the Biblical message as a sign of help, love and hope to people. Jesus also claimed himself as the “light of the world.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

Jesus used the metaphors of salt and light to teach his disciples about their mission on earth.

Last week I heard bad news from Indonesia: 14 people died during a volcanic eruption of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra. Out of these 14 people, seven of them were members of the Indonesian Student Christian Movement, or SCM. Our sisters Sunita and Nina from KUC are working with the World Christian Student Federation in the Asia-Pacific regional office. Sunita is the regional secretary, and Nina is the former secretary-general of the Indonesian Student Christian Movement. They have been very shocked and upset by this tragedy. They shared with me that these students were there as part of an emergency relief program for the refugees living near the volcano. Out of kindness, the students went to the field to inform the farmers to leave as they knew the eruption was coming soon. Unfortunately, they did not manage to leave before the eruption. They have sacrificed their lives. They are so young. They are only in their early 20s.

It is, indeed, very sad to see these young people gone. It is a tragedy.

When we look at the brave and loving act of these young people to the poor farmers who were at risk, however, they had served the Lord as salt of the earth and light of the world. The students did not hide their light from others. They did not hold back to help others even at the risk of losing their own lives.

Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

These students are the light shining before their people and us today so that we all see their good work and give glory to God in heaven.

I trust in God that these students did not die for nothing. I trust that their sacrifice will light up hope in their community and in those who are in need of help and support.

Some people may think these students are silly. But I am touched by their good hearts. I am proud of them. I am also happy for the people in Indonesia because there is love among them. There are people willing to give their lives for the sake of others. Their sacrifice has revealed the radical love which is from God, not from the world. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is our Lord, our brother and our friend, also suffered and died for his people and the whole world. Jesus Christ is the light of the world who gives hope and peace to all. The life of the students is the light of the world bringing hope to their immediate community of the SCM and their country and bringing glory and honour to God.

I am not here to justify sacrifice. I am here to glorify love and people’s willingness to give, even in a time of danger. This is the lesson we can learn from these young students.

To be salt and light in serving God’s Kingdom, there is a price to pay, and we need to be prepared for paying this price. Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world, has paid this price before us, and for us, as he sacrificed and died on the cross.

This point is the key message of the Apostle Paul, a faithful servant of Christ in the early church, that was also shared with us in today’s epistle reading.

He said to his brothers and sisters in the church in Corinth, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

The Apostle Paul in his New Testament message proclaimed the crucifixion of Jesus. He did not stress the power and success of Christ; for unlike many preachers today, Paul did not preach about the faith of success, the faith of prosperity and the good life. Rather, Paul emphasized that God’s people should live a life rooted in God’s spirit but not the world’s spirit.

We must also remember today that the Apostle Paul lived in a world full of challenges for Christians as they were a minority community during his era. Christians in his time faced harsh persecution. Paul himself had been put in jail several times, but he did not lose hope. He even sang songs of praise to God and rejoiced in the Holy Spirit when he was in prison.

No, Christians have a different definition of good life, one that is instilled from the perspective of God.

A good life for Christians is a life of deep joy and peace, a life of living in the deep love of God. To be salt of the earth and the light of world may not bring to us worldly prosperity and success, but we will be healed and be at peace with God and with ourselves and with our world.

Let us hear again the Word of God taken from the Book of Isaiah 58:69. This is a great encouragement and promise from God.

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”
In Isaiah 58:10-12, the scripture adds:
“If you offer your food to the hungry and
satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairers of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.”

To link what Jesus taught his disciples, the Prophet Isaiah in his message also reminds us that to be the light of the world is to do justice by setting people free, to love and care for the poor by offering food and shelter. We will then lead a good life, not only for ourselves, but also for our family, our church community, our society, our nation, our whole world.

Salt is a common thing, but it is essential in our lives. All of us have different gifts. No matter how small they may seem to us to be, if we use them with a big heart, they will bring benefits to others and glory to our Lord God.

Sisters and brothers, I invite you to live a meaningful life and have a bright future by being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

Sisters and brothers, come together, let the Spirit of God guide us.


Sisters and brothers, come together, let our light shine. Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, February 09, 2014

 

“Beatitudes Reconsidered”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2 February 2014 by the Rev. Dr. John LeMond. The scripture readings that day were Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and Matthew 5:1-12.


How should we live our lives?
That is a question that we ask and answer constantly
And it is answered in many different ways
I was reading an article recently about the new rich in China.
While the country boasts pockets of extreme wealth in the coastal provinces,
There are hundreds of millions of China’s people who remain in poverty.
The once classless society…
Now has an upper class who have the resources to purchase every opportunity;
And every top brand of every product available on the market.
There is a growing middle class who enjoy a comfortable style of life
And a huge lower class who continue to hope for a new tomorrow.
There was a feeling among those interviewed in the article
That now is the time to get as many material possessions as possible
And if they had the intelligence, and the opportunity
Almost any cost is worth the accumulation of wealth.

The Chinese people are no different from any other people in this respect.
This is only an example of the kind of world in which we live
An example of the options that face us.
A world in which people choose to gather huge wealth in the face of extreme poverty.
This is nothing new,
And it does not necessarily shock us.
But it is in the midst of this reality that we ask the question:
 “How do we choose to live our lives?”
What kind of world do we choose to live in?
The Chinese new rich are very straightforward
About what they are doing and why:
They have chosen the world in which they want to live.
What about us?
First of all, what causes us to choose one way of life over another?
What is it that causes us to choose a particular way of seeing the world?
Where is it that we turn when making a decision about how to live our lives?
The prophet Micah speaks to the people of Israel
About the way they have chosen to live.
It is a way that is very familiar to us
And one that has its own compelling logic:
Live richly, accumulate an abundance of material possessions,
And this will benefit not only our own lives
But it will please God as well.
The theology of prosperity is nothing new.
And it is not necessarily either good or bad.
In fact, it makes a great deal of sense
In the face of the demands of our world
Be rich, be wealthy…this is what God wants.
In this state of wealth
We can return even more to God
As Micah says:
Tens of thousands of rivers of oil
Thousands of rams.
But we don’t want to focus too much on wealth
Because it is not the question at the center of the scripture passages for this Sunday.
The central question remains: How will we choose to live our lives?

There are many paths that we can choose,
But the scripture passages for this Sunday
Offer us a particular path to follow.
As Micah says: Accumulation of wealth is not the way to go
Rather, the path to follow in your life is this:
To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
There it is.
Not a command…but a choice—
A choice that is perhaps… no better or worse than the accumulation of wealth
Or of any other path we might choose.
Yet it is clearly central to the morality and ethics of our religion.
Often, one of the reasons we choose to live our lives in one way or another
Is because of the results that a particular path will bring in our lives.
We plan our lives based on many things
And one of them is planning for the future.
What do we have to look forward to if we accumulate wealth?
What do we have to look forward to if we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?

The Apostle Paul has this to say about what we have to look forward to
If we follow the recommendation of the prophet Micah:
It is foolishness, and you will be seen as a fool
To proclaim the power of God through death on a cross?
Foolishness.
To seek justice through mercy?
To love kindness in the face of persecution?
To walk humbly with God when there is no sign of God?
Foolishness!
And your reward will be the reward of fools
Contempt and scorn…and death.
Who would choose to live life in such a way?
Yet…it remain a choice for us.
Why would we choose such a path?
Paul has an answer to this question:
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters…”
And there we have the reason for choosing such a path
It is a call from God.

This path of justice, love and humility
This path of foolishness
Has come to us as an invitation from God
We are not required to take this path
We are offered this path.
“Here,” God says, “walk this way.”
Why?
Because…I call you to walk this way.
I call you to choose to follow this way of life.
Is this the only path you may follow in order to enjoy life
No, it is not.
But this is the path I invite you to follow.
Now it is up to you to choose how you will live your life.
As Jesus was with his disciples, he saw the crowds before him
And he knew that they wanted to hear him tell them how to live their lives.
And so he taught them:

Blessed are the poor in spirit
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are the persecuted

Blessed are those who follow the path that I have called them to follow:
They will be humble in spirit, and they will mourn
They will be meek and contemplate righteousness
They will be merciful to all and will cultivate pure hearts
They will seek peace and will suffer persecution
And by following this path…
We will be filled with a sense of fulfillment and happiness?
No.
That is not promised.
What is promised is that your whole life
Will be seen by others as foolish and naïve.
Your whole life you will be given over
To values that the world despises.
In the face of the many options we have before us
This one is not particularly appealing.
And yet…in the calling…and in the following of this path
We are changed.
Because our values begin to change:
Wisdom becomes foolishness/Foolishness becomes wisdom
Meekness and mercy become powerful elements of change,
And power becomes weak and ineffective.
Seeking peace becomes valued over seeking reward.
The path begins to mold us…
And what we didn’t see about this path in the beginning becomes clearer
We are called to be blessed,
In a way that we could not have imagined;
In a way that we perhaps still cannot imagine.
But  even this change in our system of values
Is not why we choose to walk this path.
We choose to walk this path simply because…
We have been called to do so.
Something inexpressible compels us to follow;
Not because it is a better path than others
But because we discover that it is our path
The only path that makes sense of our foolish lives.
We discover that, after all,
It is, simply, what the Lord requires of us:

To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.  Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, February 02, 2014

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