Reflections...

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

“To the Unknown God”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 25 May 2014, Asia Sunday, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Acts 17:22-31


Malipayong adlaw para sa Asya!  Happy Asia Sunday to all of you. 

Asia Sunday is usually celebrated on the Sunday before Pentecost, to commemorate the founding of the Christian Conference of Asia.  CCA is an ecumenical organization whose vision is “life together in common obedience of witness to the mission of God in the world”.  The word “ecumenical” comes from the Greek word OIKOUMENE, which I prefer to explain as ‘the whole universe as the household of God.’  If the whole universe is God’s house (oikos), then all the people that God created are members of that household.   

This year, Asia Sunday falls on the 1st of June.  However, when I was on the CCA staff, we used to put a note on the Asia Sunday booklet that churches are free to find a suitable Sunday to celebrate it.  The theme for this year’s celebration is “Longing in Hope for the Freedom of Creation”.  I believe that it is a theme that can continue in the coming weeks as we also observe World Environment Day (June 5), World Oceans Day (June 8) and World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (June 17).

In our celebration of Asia Sunday today, I decided to use our lectionary readings, particularly Acts 17:22-31.  I made this decision before the Asia Sunday 2014 booklet was uploaded in the CCA website, and because I found the lectionary readings appropriate enough to speak to an enduring concern of the ecumenical movement – i.e., how we relate to people of different religions, cultures and traditions. 

Acts 17 narrates the Apostle Paul’s missionary journey to the ancient city of Athens, the center of Greek philosophy, architecture, culture, art, and religion.  It was the place where learned people engaged in philosophical discussion and debate.  The beginning of Acts 17 describes how distressed Paul was to see the city full of idols.  So he tried to share the good news of Jesus and his resurrection with the people in the synagogue and in the marketplace.  Now Jesus and his resurrection might have sounded like “Jesus and his Anastasis” – which might have been misunderstood as a new god and goddess.  Since it was illegal to introduce new foreign gods in Athens, which was already known to have more gods than people, some philosophers invited Paul to the Areopagus, the name and site of an ancient court on a rocky hill where the council of nobles met to hear and settle cases.

So what can we learn from Paul’s speech at the Areopagus that would help us in our relating with our Asian neighbors, sometimes family members who happen to embrace a different religion?  This is quite significant for us in Asia, where the major religions and philosophies of the world were born and continue to thrive: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.  Is it really impossible for people of these many religions and philosophies to live together in Asia? 

(1)   One lesson that we can get from this story is the importance of having an affirming and appreciative attitude towards other religions, cultures and traditions. 

Even though the sight of many altars to so many gods and goddesses distressed Paul, he did not take an insulting or condemning approach towards the Athenians’ religious practices.  Instead, he says to them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  I’d like to think that he was NOT saying this in order to be nice.  And usually for us, it would even be just pretending to be nice.  Paul was well informed about the beliefs of the Athenians and he sought to connect with them right where they were, with the spirit of understanding rather than of condemnation.  He was paying respect to the philosophies, beliefs and religious practices of the Athenians.  It is like saying that he honored the wisdom and devotion wherever it was found.    

I read that when the English missionary Bishop Reginald Heber went to India in the early 1800's, he was remembered to have commented on the Hindus as idolaters, bowing down to wood and stone.   Bishop Heber wrote the famous Christian hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy" which includes the line, "Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee."  Now we can understand the perspective in which that song was written.  Many of the early missionaries who came to Asia probably shared a similar attitude.  Thus, it is no wonder that many of the Christians in Asia tend to show an attitude of superiority to Asians who follow other religions.  Prof. Wilfred Cantwell Smith of Harvard Divinity School explained in his religion classes that the Hindus were not bowing down to wood and stone any more than Christians were bowing down to a wooden or stone cross or image of the crucified Jesus.  Rather, Smith said, both Hindus and Christians bow down to what the wood and stone symbolize for them, pointing to what lies behind them – namely, God.

My sister who lives in Thailand shared with me how some friends (and also relatives) who visited them tend to comment negatively about the Buddhist temples and shrines that abound in Bangkok.  It is sad that these visitors cannot appreciate the religiosity of the Thais but instead judge them based on their own Christian upbringing.  I remember having a student in my class at the College of Divinity in Payap University.  Coming from another Asian country, she said she found it very hard to do the wai (the Thai gesture with arms folded together to one’s chest, which is usually done when you greet someone older, or someone higher in position).  She said that because for her that gesture is used when praying to God, she found it difficult to use it for anyone else.  But I learned that the wai, which is the same gesture when greeting Namaste or Namaskar in India or Nepal, actually means, “I recognize the divine in you.”  Isn’t that a beautiful thing – to affirm the divine in one another?  After all, as the Bible affirms, each one of us is created in the image of God!    

The ability to affirm or appreciate other people’s religion, tradition or culture comes with more knowledge and understanding about the essence of their religion, culture or tradition.  Thus, we need to be open, to learn from others, because we have so much to learn…  And we can do so meaningfully only in the spirit of understanding and appreciation rather than of judgment or condemnation.         


(2)   Another lesson that we can get from this story is the importance of making connections and finding points of similarity or convergence, instead of focusing on divergence or differences.  In the story, Paul does this by referring to an altar with the inscription, “to an unknown god.”

But why have an altar for an unknown god?  According to a legend, Athens was plagued by pestilence around the 6th century BC.  Having exhausted their strategies to abate the plague, the city rulers asked the prophet Epimenides of Crete to help.  His remedy was to release a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus, followed closely by attendants.  Wherever the sheep lay down, the attendants were to sacrifice them to the god of that place.  The idea was to appease the angry gods who caused the plague.  If the place where the sheep lay down in had no affiliation with any deity, the attendants were to build an altar, dedicating it “to an Unknown God”.  It was believed that after the plague had passed, the Athenians maintained the altars in remembrance of what had happened there. 

Paul tried to show that this “unknown god” to the Athenians is in fact the God who made the world and everything in it.  I like how he quoted the Greek poets who said, in this God “we live and move and have our being”, and thus, “we too are his offspring”.  This God is the God of all people in all places at all times!  And if we believe so, we must also believe that we are all God’s children – i.e. God’s offspring.  Such an affirmation would be a great point of convergence, on which better understanding and harmony can be fostered.    

The trouble we have when having a dialogue with people of other faiths or religions is we tend to focus on divergence and differences.  Worse is when we use the best about our religion to compare with the worst of another religion.  For example, some Christians take great pride in saying that theirs is a religion of peace while other religions promote violence.  If we get to know the different religions more closely, we would see that they are essentially for peace; but unfortunately people interpret and act on their religions’ teachings differently. 


A Filipino couple who were very good friends of my parents got a chance to visit Bangkok, Thailand a few years ago.  When they returned to the Philippines they shared with my parents how amazed they were at finding how economically better off Thailand was compared to the Philippines.  They were amazed because in their minds they could not believe that a predominantly non-Christian country could be so “blessed”.  They further shared that while they were in Bangkok, they prayed so hard to God that the people in Thailand would come to believe in Christ.         

Our problem as Christians is that our conceptions of God may be too narrow.   Like when we think that God only loves and blesses Christians and no one else.  Or when we think that only Christians are capable of doing good, while those of other religions are not.  Have you heard how some Christians would comment about a person who is a follower of another religion and is known to be a good person?  They would say, “Oh that is because he/she is a secret Christian.”  When we continue to think this way, we will find it hard to have meaningful dialogue with those of other faiths or religions. 

(3)   The third lesson that we can get from this story is the importance of repentance, metanoia in Greek, which means change in one’s way of thinking, practice and living.  

Despite his admiration or appreciation for the Athenians’ wisdom and devotion, Paul still challenged them toward growth.  Paul talked of how God commands all people everywhere to repent because of the impending time of judgment through his appointed one.  As Christians, we can tell that even though Paul does not mention the name explicitly, he is referring to Christ Jesus here as the appointed one, the one who has been raised from the dead, the one to judge in righteousness.
                                                                                                        
We have to remember that Paul was asked to explain his teaching at the Areopagus by philosophers, who had their different notions of the divine and how to live meaningfully in the world.  For some the divine is too distant to be interested or involved in human affairs; for some, they have to depend on their own actions and works in order for something to happen in life; whereas many also believed in appeasing this god or that god whenever something bad or sad happened in their life.  Paul reminded them all of the God who is the creator, ruler and sustainer of all; this God does not live in temples built by human hands and does not need to be served by human hands.  This all-sufficient God does not need anything but is the provider and sustainer of all that human beings need. 

Some commentators on the passage have pointed out that while Paul was distressed to see the many altars to different gods and goddesses, the other form of idolatry that could have been just as equally distressing was the worship of oneself.  When the self is made the priority of one’s life and the pursuit of one’s desires became the rule of life – that too is idolatry. 

This is an important reminder for us today – we may not be bowing to any physical images when we do our religious practice.  But we must ask ourselves who or what really takes priority in our lives (for that is our idol or god).  Is it oneself?  Is it one’s loved one, or family?  Is it our looks, our reputation, our name or fame?  Is it our work or occupation?  Whatever it is that takes great priority in our life most of the time could be the little god or idol that we worship in place of the true God – who is waiting and longing for us. 

Paul connects the need for repentance, metanoia, with the time of judgment.  While repentance has indeed a lot to do with our personal and individual lives, it also has a lot to do with our collective lives as a people in Asia and the world.  Sin after all is not just about bad personal habits that may hurt someone.  It is also about structures and policies in society that breed hurtful environments for many – such as poverty and injustice, corruption and violence.

As our song “God of Asia, God of All” (composed by the Rev. Dr. Salvador Martinez for the CCA General Assembly 2005) will remind us, we in Asia are a diverse people, divided for many reasons; rich in resources but our lands are often devastated – because of wars and our neglect; many are suffering, violence is increasing, many live in hopelessness, doubt and fear.

In the face of all these, we are called to metanoia, repentance, change in our thinking and living.  One form of metanoia is a return to God as we commit our lives to serving God, by serving God’s people.  But our bigger challenge in Asia is to call our leaders and the powers-that-be in our different countries to metanoia – i.e. from only thinking of enriching themselves at the expense of the suffering and vulnerable people of our lands.  This is our more daunting task today – speaking to and calling upon the powers that be, that they may be open to a real metanoia.  May we strive to do whatever we can to help bring this about. 

Let us pray, with the words from this song: 
God of Asia, God of all:
            Turn our doubts into faith; and our fears into hope
            Let love rule in our hearts; let justice rule in our lands
            Give us strength to serve and love to persevere
            Till true peace with justice reign in our communities.  Amen

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, May 25, 2014

 

Abundant Life

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Easter Sunday 11 May 2014 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25 and John 10:1-10.


Opening prayer
Dear God, thank for your living words and your love that revealed in Jesus Christ. May your words O God nourish our soul and strengthen us to become more Christ like. Amen.

Introduction
Happy Mother’s Day!

We were all born from our biological mothers. Mother and child thus have special bonding. We celebrate Mother’s Day and give thanks to our mothers for their care and love to the children. I always remember Daniel my son’s sharing about our former domestic helper – Mimi. He said Mimi was like his mum when he was young. Mimi started to work for us when he was two years old. Mimi took care of him every day. She fed him, took him to bath, took him to school and played with him. Mimi had given to him such an intensive care when Tong and I were away from home to work. Therefore I was very grateful to Mimi for her immense help and loving support to our children and family. I was also happy that our two children respect and love Mimi, and they have maintained very good relationship even after Mimi stopped working for us.
I am also indebted to my mother. She gave to me an earthly life. She did not only raise me and take care of me, she had also helped me to look after our children when they were small. On this Mother’s Day I am missing her a lot.

Abundant life begins with a thankful heart
The gospel reading today is taken from John 10:1-10. This is the teaching of Jesus on the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, as well as his claim of being a good shepherd. This reading is one of my favourite verses:

Jesus said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10:10)

In today’s message about ‘abundant life’, Mother’s Day inspires me to reflect on an important aspect in life. Our life would never have been abundant if no one give us life in the first place. We will never experience the richness of life if there is no one there to help and care for us.

Therefore while we are celebrating Mother’s Day, we are here to celebrate life and life in abundance. Our mothers are definitely the first persons we should say thank you. Abundant life does not come by itself, it is nurtured by people who are there when we need them. They love and care for us in a unique way. They may be our fathers, our grand-parents, our siblings, our uncles and aunties, our teachers, our pastors, our friends and colleagues….you name it. 

‘The Lord is our shepherd, I shall not want.’ (Psalm 23:1) From a spiritual point of view, God who is the Creator of the universe, is the first one who gives to us the abundant life on earth.  We should be thankful for that.

Life would not be abundant if we take it for granted and don’t cherish it. The more we are grateful to God and to those who nourish and support us, the more we are blessed in life. Therefore, an abundant life begins with a thankful heart.

I know there may be some people who do not celebrate Mother’s Day because their mother or their children are not around due of work or because their mother has passed away, or simply because they don’t have good relationship with their mother or children.

A friend of mine found out that she was an adopted child when she was in her forties. She was shocked at the beginning. But later when she was able to digest the whole thing, she started to be grateful for her adopted mother and father. Although the thought of being abandoned still haunts and tears her apart, she has been gradually able to confirm one fact – without her biological mother, she won’t  exist in this world. Without her adopted parents, she may not even survive up to now. Therefore my friend was able to transform every now and then to face her life, a life of brokenness. To live a life from brokenness to a life of abundance, I believe ‘being grateful’ is an important element. Of course the process is not easy and she has gone through different stages of healing.

We do need God to heal and to seek God’s power of forgiveness in our relationships that have been so hurting. An abundant life cannot be fulfilled if we carry the guilt and shame, hatred and anger with our beloved ones.

Abundant life is to engage in God’s service
Jesus said: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. (John 10:10)
Jesus’ promise to give life of abundance is very attractive indeed. But when I started to serve in KUC and met with some asylum seekers I found that their lives were so difficult. They were not happy with the current life situation. They had more worries than hope because of an uncertain future. What does Jesus’ promise of an abundant life mean to them?

After a while I found that our African brothers are talented in music and dancing. Their drumming in African style is powerful and their voice is strong. I then confirm that no matter how poor and miserable a person seem to be, God gives each one of us some gifts that we may enjoy and bring glory to God if we use it with a serving heart. I thus gather them to form the African Voices to sing in the church and form the peace making team to go for outreach programs in the community. They went to local churches, schools and community centres to share their music talents, experiences in Hong Kong as refugees and their cultures from home.

When they begin to serve and focus on what they can do and contribute, their life is no more the same. They have become happier and find life more meaningful. They may also make better use of their time by doing something that can contribute to the community and serve God as peace ambassadors. 

In connection to this pastoral experience, let me share the context of Jesus’ teaching in John 10.

Jesus taught during a Jewish festival called ‘Hanukkah’. He was speaking to the religious Jewish leaders. At the Hanukkah festival, Israel recalled the failed leadership of the temple during the Maccabean era. During its ceremonies of the Hanukkah liturgy, there is powerful criticism of Israel’s ‘false shepherds’. You may refer it to the Book of Ezekiel 34.

Jesus criticized the leadership in Jerusalem, he also launched the principal theme of Hanukkah identifying the true and false shepherd of God’s people.

Hanukkah in Hebrew means offering, therefore this festival is also known as the Feast of Dedication. Jesus had dedicated himself to serve as a good shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep. (v.11)

In the Catholic tradition, the 4th Sunday in Easter is taken as Good Shepherd Sunday or Vocation Sunday

Abundant life is thus not a conceptual understanding nor is something we passively receive. Abundant life is an active engagement in God’s service to bring goodness for others by offering what has been given.  An abundant life for us as Christian is to walk with Jesus Christ in his life and in his ministry on earth.

Jesus Christ came to world to love and to save. His sacrifice has set an example for us. He called his followers to do the same as him.

2 Peter 2:21 – “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

In Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we will then know what Jesus is referring to in abundant life. Abundant life is not free from suffering and pain.

Abundant life is not an absence of life trial.
In ancient Israel, Shepherd is an image and figure of God who care for his people. A shepherd is good to his people. He provides what they need and protect them from danger. A shepherd is thus like a strong king and caring mother to protect and to love.
Psalm 23
“He made me lie down in green pasture; he leads me beside still waters. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. ”

In Psalm 23, the image of good shepherd has been described in details. This poetry is beauty. But when we read between the lines and knowing the potential danger in the wilderness, we will know very well the world that we are living in is not safe. What’s more, the life we engage on earth is never free from danger nor trial.

Although Jesus promised to come to give life and a life of abundance, we should be know also:

Abundant life is not an absence of brokenness.
Abundant life is not an absence of sickness
Abundant life is not an absence of enemies.
What is abundant life then?

Abundant life - is our deep trust in God’s promise of life and love, and Christ’ deep commitment to forgive and save.

Abundant life – is to live with a thankful heart, to give thanks to God and others for what we have been given.  

Abundant life – is to serve with a willing mind, to return to Jesus Christ, be healed and follow the foot step of Jesus -- Christ to love and to serve.


Dear sisters and brothers, to live a life in Jesus Christ our good shepherd, surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long. May we and our church continue our abundant life with hope and joy. Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, May 11, 2014

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