Reflections...

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

Streams of Mercy – Never Ceasing

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 30 March 2014 by the Rev. Ewing W. [Bud] Carroll, Jr. The scriptures reading that day was Luke 13:9.


If you have ever travel across China’s Gobi Desert you will know this – It’s very big.  Well, that’s not true.  It’s NOT very big.  It’s H-U-G-E.  How huge?  1,295,000 square kilometers.  So you ask – “How big is that?”  About the combined size of South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and all of HK: the Kowloon peninsular, the New Territories and our 232 islands.

By regular train across the Gobi– it’s mile after mile, hour after hour; vast stretches of nothing, seemingly barren, lifeless.  But you know that after sundown, when darkness comes, deserts come live.  Animals that are nowhere seen during daytime are suddenly, “out and about.”  In the darkness of night, plants hardly noticed in the bright sunlight begin to blossom; some even with fragrance that can be smelled far away.

In today’s Hebrew Scriptures Isaiah paints a picture of the Jewish people in Babylonian exile.  For many, life had become like a desert.  Those who were still in what is today’s Baghdad, Iraq, were distressed and discouraged.  Life seemed so Dry, so Barren.  Sadly, many had simply turned their backs on God.  And so Isaiah was writing words of both warning and encouragement.  Speaking on behalf of God, Isaiah invited the people of Israel to “repent”; to “turn around;” to “return” to God.  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found…” [Isaiah 55:1].

Centuries later Jesus, who knew the richness and beauty of Isaiah’s words, told the parable of the Fig Tree - with similar encouragement and warning.  Fig trees can grow most any place and they are usually quite productive in bearing fruit.  But Jesus described this particular fig tree as “a loser.”  It consumed water and space but didn’t produce a single fig!  The owner had enough, saying, “Cut it down”.  He wanted a tree that was productive and profitable.

But Jesus wasn’t really talking about fig trees.  He was describing the Jewish people – and you and me, this KUC Family – or any and all who in some way claim to be followers of Christ, but often live in disobedience to God.  Call it sin, separation, alienation -whatever.  The meaning is the same.  Our lives are often not fully in touch with or attuned to God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.”

I find this parable particularly useful and helpful for our own faith journey – especially during this Season of Lent.  Look with me for a few minutes at how God invites us to be more productive and profitable- not in terms of money, property, position or power – but in faithfulness.

1.  Try to be useful.  Sometimes when I was feeling a bit discouraged or I couldn’t resolve a particular problem, my then two-year old granddaughter would say to me, ”But you can try, Grandpa.”  The fig tree’s problem was not that it was doing something bad.  Rather, it wasn’t doing anything!  Uselessness invites danger – and often self-destruction.  Idleness in the young and old invites all sorts of problems and trouble.  Of course, there are times when we feel useless.  We say we don’t do anything right.  Problems - in our work place, government and church gatherings, families - all seem so overwhelming.  HK’s motto often seems to be “mwo banfaat” [No way].  Truth be told, that’s mostly self-pity or disinterest.  There’s always a way.  Maybe not OUR way or in our time, but there is always Christ _ Thy Way!

Jesus’ Parable of the Fig Tree is a word of challenge and encouragement.  Clean your glasses!  Look at the world?  There are tremendous needs and opportunities.  Be useful.  God is not asking us to produce five hundred pounds of figs.  Each of us has special gifts we can share with God and the world.  We also have limitations.  But remember, God doesn’t ask us “Have you been successful?”  Only, “Have you tried to be useful?”

2.  Secondly, seek to both give and receive.  Basically all living creatures need to both give and receive; nothing, which only receives, can survive. Some years ago I was visiting a rural development project in Cambodia.  We had been driving through a huge forest when suddenly there was clearing ahead.  Two years before that it was also part of that huge forest - full of beautiful trees, wild elephants and other animals.  Now, nothing.  It looked like China’s Gobi Desert in the daytime. Barren.  Desolate.  The only signs of life were a few internal refugees sawing a huge tree into strips of timber.  The tree must have been 8-10 feet round.  Maybe 100 years old.  I asked one of the men, “How will you ever re-plant this forest?”  “Oh,” he said, “We left the tree stumps.  The trees will grow back in a few years.”  Not a chance!

Some people “take” more than they “give.”  Others – the opposite.  Which do you think you are?  For Jesus, being productive wasn’t/isn’t about becoming financially rich or famous.  He wants us to use whatever talents, gifts and experiences we have for the glory of God.  Otherwise, we dry up.  Our spirits will wither and life will become empty, arid as the Gobi Desert.

3.  Thirdly, celebrate the Gospel of the second chance.  The gardener tells the owner, “Sir, I think we can save this fig tree.  Give me a year and I’ll see what I can do.  I’ll fertilize the tree, water it well and hopefully by this time next year, we’ll have a good harvest of fresh, delicious figs.” But again, Jesus is not talking about trees.  He’s still talking about people – about you and me.

“Repent” or “Perish” is not God trying to scare us to death.  It’s God inviting us to new life.  Again, again and again.  And again!  “Repent” or “perish” remind us that God has not abandoned us.  Nor is God ready to dig us up and throw us away.  Robert Robinson was a pastor in England some 300 years ago.  He was a great preacher and also wrote poetry and hymns.  Sadly, after many years, his faith began to weaken and he strayed far, far away from God’s love.  He left the church, and ended up in France, living a sordid, sad and sinful life.  One night, Robinson was riding in a horse carriage with a wealthy woman from Paris.  She was a new Christian and was interested in Robinson’s views about some poetry she had been reading.  She pulled a small book from her purse and began reading, “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.  Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”  Suddenly, she stopped and saw Robinson was crying. “What do I think of that poem”” he replied.  “Madam, I wrote it.  But now I’ve drifted away from Christ and cannot find my way back.”


In amazement the woman replied, “Oh, but the answer is right here.  Just what you wrote, ‘Streams of mercy, never ceasing…’” and with that Robinson “Repented”.  He ‘”turned around” and once again became productive for God.  My friends, God is not a gambler; God doesn’t take chances.  God gives chances; again, again and again.  Lent is a time in the words of Isaiah, “To come to the waters”.  This is a time when U-turns are not only legal – they are encouraged.  God’s ”streams of mercy” are never-ending.  So what’s stopping us?

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, March 30, 2014

 

Well – being and being well

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 23 March 2014 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 17:1-7, Roman 5: 1-11 and John 4:5-42.


Opening prayer:

God of life, we thank you for the water to sustain our physical body and the word of truth that nourishes our soul.  May your word oh God guide us to walk in the way, the truth and life of Christ.

May the word of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, and bring to you honor and glory. Amen.   

Story
The gospel account on the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well reminds me of a story about my mother when she was a little girl.

The story happened when she was three years old. One day she heard a baby living in same village crying. When she went to see her, she found her shivering in a chilly weather. She felt pity on this child.  Immediately she remembered that she had an old Mein Nap (a jacket with thick cotton lining) at home. In the old days, people used to wear Mein Nap to keep themselves warm in winter. Without any hesitation, she went back home and took that jacket for this baby. She put her arms through the sleeves and wore the jacket, not on her back, but on her front so that it was like a cape and she was flying around, being excited to share her jacket with the baby, not realizing that she was moving closer and closer to the well. Before the neighbor can warn her, she fell in! Luckily, the jacket floated on the water and acted like a safety ring, keeping my mother afloat until help arrived.

The story at the well from the bible leads me to link the story of my mother. My mother was like a well, giving to me the needed water to nourish my life. From the love she shared with our family throughout her life, and with that baby when she was only three years old, I see how she had lived her life like living water to bring to others happiness and hope.

Trip to KUC Organic Farm in Tai Po
Yesterday, a group of us from the church visited the Organic Farm in Tai Po. We had a great time helping out, clearing the weeds, sowing, planting seedlings, and fetching water from the stream to fill up the watering barrels. Some friends even waded into the stream to build a little dam to store up the water. It was a wonderful day out for all of us.

On our way home, I thought about the puddle of water that was dammed up and was stagnant and muddied, while in the rest of the stream which is still flowing, the water was clear and cool to the touch. The same water, but what a difference when it is stagnant in a pool and when it is free flowing.

The well as a symbol for spiritual life
Yesterday was the World Water Days. This is an international day held every year on 22 March, to celebrate fresh water. Water is very important and is essential for sustaining life. In fact, we are mostly water, around 50 to 70% of our bodies is made up of water. So we are all water babies! We can go without food for weeks, but we would die without water for just a few days.

We may think there is a lot of water about. Yes, you're right, in fact 70% of the earth's surface is covered with water. But unfortunately, most of the water is seawater and is too salty to drink. Only 2.5% of the earth's water is fresh water, but much of it is locked up as ice in the north and south poles. So in reality, only about 0.5% of the water in the world is actually available for us to use.

Here in HK, we are fortunate that we can turn on a tap and have instant access to fresh, clean water that we can drink! But in many developing countries, clean water is a rare commodity and the lack of clean water to drink is a major cause of diarrhea, which kills 4 to 6 million people every year. Indeed, it has been estimated that about 1 in 4 children under the age of five dies from diarrhea every year. 1 in 4 deaths just because they don't have clean water to drink! Can you imagine that?

In today's scripture reading, we heard how Jesus referred to living water as a symbol for an everlasting source of spiritual life. The trip to the organic farm reminds me that while Jesus and the spirit dwell in all of us, we should not just let the spirit stays inside of us, like the stagnant water in that stream, becoming muddied and lifeless. We should make sure that the living water continues to flow through us, allowing others to draw inspiration, and love, and support from us, so that the same spirit can continue to flow and work its magic from one life to another life, using each one of us as channels.

Jesus is the source of the living water who gives to us eternal life.

In the bible story, there was indication that the Samaritan woman had a strong desire to make a change. Maybe she was tired to come for such a long way to get water. Maybe she has been fed up with the isolation with other people. The fact that she came to the well to get water at noon is unusual in her time as most people would avoid the Mediterranean heat.  

This Samaritan woman was inspired after her conversation with Jesus. The courage  of Jesus to break boundaries, his prophetic power to know she has five husbands and his insight on worship: that one should not focus on the location and human tradition, rather, the key of worship is in spirit and in truth as God is Spirit; this insight has changed the course of her life. She started to share her testimony with her people the Samaritans. She broke her isolation and spoke up like a living water to bring life to others. Many of her people went to Jesus after they heard from her story. This Samaritan woman was a great witness to Jesus Christ. She opened up herself to receive the living water, her life is no longer the same.

We see how this woman had been changed after she received this living water from Jesus.

The living water flows in our life to help change the course of our life. Like Jesus and this Samaritan woman, we should not be afraid to challenge old traditions and norms that have segregated people and enslaved us.

We have entered into the Lent season and today is the third Sunday of Lent.

Lent is a season to offer Christians a chance to reflect on our faith. It is a time to remind us of the need to repent and refocus our lives in God.

To live a life like living water to bring eternal life is a key for us to reflect today.

Our mission

When we are committed to make our life flow like living water to bring life and hope, we should have the courage to challenge traditions and practices that create segregation and division. Jesus broke three boundaries – gender, race, and religions:

Firstly, Jesus broke the boundary of gender because men shouldn’t speak to women in public in his time. But he initiated the dialogue with the Samaritan woman.

Secondly, Jews shouldn’t have any contact with the Samaritans because they have been regarded as impure. Moreover, Samaritans have been enemies of the Jews. Jesus broke the boundary of race.

Thirdly, the Jews and the Samaritans have different understanding on their holy scriptures and worship practice. But Jesus dared to discuss with the Samaritan woman about worship in public.

Jesus has broken many barriers in order to bring life and freedom. Is there any barrier in our lives and in our world that blocks the flow of life and enslaves people who are not able to be free?

Apostle Paul shared with us a message in the Letter of Roman we heard this morning. We have received the gift of faith, hope and reconciliation from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In return, as God’s children and Jesus’ disciples we are called to share this gift with others. 

The Samaritans had experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ and they affirmed that Jesus’ salvation is for the whole world.

The mission to bring reconciliation in all relationship has been given to the believers and the church.

As shared in 2 cor 5:17-18: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…”  

Theologically, water is also a symbol of purification, a visible sign for our sins are cleansed. When we receive the living water given by Christ, we will be empowered to endure all difficulties with great hope and with faith we engage in the ministry of reconciliation. One of the reconciliations we need to take up in the world today is to restore the harmonious relationship between nature and human race as human beings have consumed too much and have bought a lot of destruction to them.

The World Water Day reminds us that fresh water is scarce and precious, we should do our best to protect it from pollution and consume it carefully without excess and waste.

We are human and have our limitations. There may have times we grumble and angry, and even lost our faith in God like the Israelites in the wilderness. But God is good. God is always loving and considerate to give what we need. The living water from the rock reminds that even when we are desperate and struggling at the brink of death, God is there to look after us.


The living water from God will strengthen our lives and renew our hope again and again. Dear sisters and brothers, let us drink this living water from Christ every day. By doing so, we will keep our well-being and we are able to make others being well. 

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

 

To Know Good and Evil

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9 March 2014, Women’s Sunday, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11.


Today Kowloon Union Church celebrates Women’s Sunday since it is closest to March 8, the International Women’s Day.  As many of you know, International Women's Day honors the struggle of the early women who claimed their right to vote; the women who called for an end to war; the women who struggled for equality in work and pay; the women who fought for women’s rights as human rights. 

For some people, the celebration may have become something like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, when women are given flowers and special treats; or given time-off from caring for children and cooking for the family.  But actually, the observance is to build support for women’s rights and participation in various aspects of life.  It is a time to reflect on progress made in the area of women’s empowerment.  It is also a time to call for change where women still experience discrimination, injustice and violence.  And it is a time to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in their communities. 

For our reflection, I decided to stick with the Lectionary readings for today, which include excerpts from the creation story in Genesis 2-3.  We all know this story.  But may I invite you to reflect with me on this story with new eyes and new ears.   

You must have learned that the story is about original sin, resulting from Adam and Eve's disobedience when they ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Original sin is part of the doctrine of the fall – the belief that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they ‘fell’ from perfection and brought evil into a perfect world.  St. Augustine, a church father who explained this theory extensively, said that this fallen human condition is transmitted from generation to generation through procreation.  Thus, every person is automatically blemished with the original sin.

You must have also heard that many times, Eve is blamed for tempting Adam into sin.  We can read about it in I Timothy 2:14: “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”  This is why there has been a misogynistic (anti-women) attitude within Christianity for centuries.  The Lectionary readings for today, however, include Romans 5 rather than 1Timothy.  I think it is because the focus is to compare Adam’s disobedience which brought sin and death into the world with Christ’s obedience that brought justification and life for all. 

In celebration of Women’s Sunday, I will focus on the creation story and invite you to find new lessons from this that would be more inspiring and liberating. 

There are two ways of reading this story.  One is the literalist view which regards the story as something other than a myth or a folk story.  This view would take the meaning of the story to the letter – such as affirming that Adam and Eve were real historical persons; that the Garden of Eden was a physical place that God originally created; that the serpent was also a physical, historical being.  If one takes this literalist view, one would find the theory of original sin easy to follow.   

The other way is the literary view which regards this story as a form of etiology.  Etiology [from aitia, Greek word for ‘cause’] is the study of causes or origins, expressed in terms of historical or mythical explanation.[1]  We have many folk tales, myths and legends on how a certain place, fruit, animal, or the human being came to be.  For example, we have the legend of why and how the Durian has a spiky shell and a very strong smell.  Yet we know that no one was there to actually record how the Durian came to be at the beginning of history.

Since we are already familiar with the literalist view, I suggest that we learn from the literary view to get to the deeper meanings behind the creation story. 

Many Bible scholars are convinced that the creation story appears to have been drawn from an ancient Near Eastern tradition of an idyllic garden from which rivers flowed.  God created the human beings to till and keep the garden, and to enjoy the fruit of its trees.  The idea of an idyllic garden is symbolic of the unbroken relationships between God and humanity, and between humanity and nature. 

However, Bible scholar Mary Phil Korsak suggests that the garden was meant to be a temporary location and condition, a womb-like incubation for humankind in their infancy.[2]  The humans must eventually move out of the garden to perform their occupation.  Hence, the river flowing out into other lands demonstrates that life is possible outside of Eden

Then God said: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."  So God’s gift of freedom in the idyllic garden had a limit or boundary.  It is like a parent telling the children, “You can do this, but not that.  You can take this, but not that.”  Growing up in the Philippines, I remember how parents would scare their little children from going somewhere by saying: “Don’t go there.  If you go, you will be eaten by a monster.”  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden is a symbol of the limit or boundary to human freedom.  And all that God wanted was that they would respect that limit, that boundary. 

In the words of Walter Brueggemann, 
There are secrets about the human heart and the human community which must be honored, bowed before, and not exposed.  That is because the gift of life in the human heart and in the human community is a mystery retained by God for himself.  It has not been put at the disposal of human ingenuity and human imagination. [3]

However, the human tendency seems to be to test the limit, push the boundary, and do that which is forbidden.                     

What is the significance of the serpent?  Because of the role of the serpent in this creation story, the snake is among the most demonized of creatures.  When I mentioned this in a theological lecture in an Indian seminary a few years ago, one young pastor responded that whenever he’d see a snake, he would kill it because the Bible speaks of enmity with the snake.  There is a joke that if God had only created Adam a Chinese, there would have been no original sin because he would have immediately turned the snake into soup. 

A common character in the mythology of the ancient Near East, the serpent was often portrayed as representative of wisdom, imbued with a position of divinity and knowledge.  The word “Arum” (often translated as ‘cunning’ or ‘crafty’) is used frequently in wisdom literature as prudent.  In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells the disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Why did the serpent choose to discuss with the woman?  In the Old Testament, wisdom is often personified as a woman.  In fact, God’s agent of Wisdom, Sophia, is a female character.  Many Bible commentators consider the serpent to be an extension of Eve, rather than an independent or external character.[4]  Thus, the serpent’s cunning is really the woman’s cunning.  The dialogue between the woman and the serpent is her own wrestling with the issue of whether or not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

So what is the significance of “knowing good and evil” as a result of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree?  Bible scholars say it symbolizes growing into the knowledge of opposite realities that require making choices, discerning among options or possibilities.  The choices can be between good and evil, right and wrong, creativity and destruction, and the many shades in between, as well as facing the consequences for choosing one or the other.  This is the knowledge that infant children do not have; that youth and adults have to wrestle with.  To know good and evil is therefore to attain wisdom.  In our common language, we call it conscience.       

Korsak claims that God really intended for the man and woman to leave Eden, after their ‘eyes have been opened’, which means they have received the knowledge and wisdom to live in the world.  She asserts that God’s statement in relation to the tree of knowing good and evil reflects motherly concern, not so much of a threat.  Like a human mother, God was dreading the coming of knowledge resulting in her children leaving her direct influence.       

The story of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4:1-11 describes Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert, fasting forty days and forty nights, and then being tempted by the devil.  While the passage does not mention serpent or snake but the devil, many paintings on this story portray this so-called devil as a winged red creature, if not a person, with horns and tail, and a pitchfork in his hand.  But having demystified the role of the serpent in the creation story, we can also re-read the temptation of Jesus in a new light.  That it happened soon after his baptism tells us that it was a period of making decisions, of choosing from opposing options, on how he would carry out his ministry.  Indeed, forty days and forty nights signify a period of waiting – just like the 40 days that Noah and his group in the ark watched the rain fall; or the 40 days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 commandments; or the 40 years that the Israelites wandered around the desert before they could get to the Promised Land. 

The significance of the temptation is that it clarified for Jesus the kind of messiah or leader he was going to be.  According to an evangelical preacher, Paul Fritz, the three temptations that Jesus faced had to do with three needs.  The first temptation had to do with the desire for Self-Satisfaction.  When thinking of what is the most important in life – is it seeking the good life by satisfying one’s physical and material needs, or obeying the God’s will?  The second temptation had to do with the desire for Self-Accomplishment.  When thinking of how to do great things, should one go for the spectacular in order to be famous, or go with a simple trust in God?  The third temptation had to do with the desire for Self-Glorification.  In carrying out God’s mission, should we take shortcuts in order to get to the end as quickly as possible, or should we allow God to accomplish God’s plan in God’s time and God’s way?  Indeed, these three temptations remain true for us to this day.   
    
I hope that on this Women’s Sunday we have gained a fresh understanding of the creation story that for a long time has been used to keep Eve and all women after her subordinate, oppressed, the object of blame and shame for the sin of the world.  I hope that you have found a more liberating message – which is that wisdom – To Know Good and Evil – is really God’s gift and will for us.  It is a sign of our coming of age – that we have grown in our being created in the image or likeness of God. 

However, while divine wisdom is God’s gift, it does not come easily to us.  It involves careful discernment, struggle within oneself and maybe with others, having an ability to reason out and weigh options, making sound decisions and firm commitment on one’s choices, and being responsible for the consequences of such choices.  As we struggle within ourselves, we may need some help from others.  And isn’t it comforting to know that we have our role model in Christ Jesus, who did face and overcome temptation.          

During this first Sunday in Lent, may we each embark on a journey of reflection.  May it help us grow in wisdom – like it did Eve, the mother of all the living.  May it strengthen us in our life’s commitments, like it did Jesus, our role model who dealt with temptation using the gift of divine wisdom.  

Finally, here is an encouraging verse from the Bible for those of us who are struggling with temptation in life: 
“…remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.  And God is faithful.  (God) will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can't stand up against it.  When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.”   1 Corinthians 10:13 (NLT)

Let us pray:

Dear God,
Thank you for new lessons that we have learned today – that the wisdom to know good and evil is your gift to us.  May this gift of wisdom strengthen and guide us each day, as we encounter temptations in our lives.  Thank you for the assurance that we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear.  Thank you that in Christ Jesus we have both a great role model and a faithful deliverer.  Amen.


[1] Danijel Berković, “From Misogyny to Cult: An Etiological Reading of Genesis 3,” KAIROS - Evangelical Journal of Theology / Vol. III. No. 2 (2009), pp. 153-170 [156].
[2] Mary Phil Korsak, “A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden,” Semeia, vol. 81, (1998) pp. 131-145 [138].
[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Genesis,” Interpretation (a Bible Commentary for teaching and preaching), Louisville: John Knox Press (1982),  p. 152.
[4] R. Kimelman, “The Seduction of Eve and Feminist Readings of the Garden of Eden,” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal.  vol. 6 (1998), pp. 1-39 [5-6].

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

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