Reflections...

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

“Promise and Obedience”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 28 September 2014 by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 17:1-7; Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13.


When I read the Lectionary readings for today’s sermon, I felt that the key words that stand out in all of them are ‘promise’ and ‘obedience’.  Hence, it is the title of this sermon.  However, the difference is that in Exodus 17:1-7, it is God who makes a promise and is faithful in following it through even to a disobedient people.  Having decided to focus on the parable for this sermon, I pondered for a moment and several sayings flashed in my mind:
·         “Promises are made to be broken.” 
·         “Actions speak louder than words.” 
·         “Thoughts do more.  Words do much.  Actions do much more.”   
·         “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”
·         “You can talk the talk; can you walk the talk?”

Jesus told parables as a method of teaching.  Parables are simple, ordinary stories from common life experiences, but which carry deep moral or spiritual lessons.  Hence, we need to read the text (or the selected passage) in view of the larger context (the wider background).  If we look at chapters 21-24 of the Gospel according to Matthew, we can tell how Jesus criticized the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders.  This parable is part of that critical discourse.
      
At the outset, the parable looks very straightforward and I am sure we all can relate to it – either as parents or as children.  I am sure that at one time or another, each of us has been a maker or receiver of a promise.  At one time or another, each of us has also been a keeper or a breaker of a promise.  We do not need to point fingers at advertisers who promise to make us fairer, slimmer, healthier or happier with their products.  Or at politicians who promise to address the problems of society if we only elect them.  

Try doing a quick flashback: Did we not promise to do a chore or to be home early to help, but got distracted by something more fun to do outside, when we were younger?  Did we not tell someone, “I’ll call you back”, “We’ll get together soon”, or “I’ll take care of it” but could not follow through?  Sometimes we make promises just to get a person off our back – but we really want to say “No, I don’t want to.”     

This parable is so straightforward that we can easily tell who the characters represent and what the obvious answer is to Jesus’ question, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” 

Unfortunately, by seeing these two sons being compared or contrasted, we often end up thinking there are indeed two kinds of people in the vineyard, in God’s world.  One kind is represented by the first son who at first said ‘No’, but ended up doing the work.  The other kind is represented by the second son who said ‘Yes”, but ended up not doing the work.  And when we apply it to our own lives, we would immediately hope that we are among the first kind of people, the first son, whose actions speak louder than words. 

We have to be careful about judging, labeling or categorizing people as one kind or the other.  In fact, in our real lives, we know that there are many kinds of people in the vineyard, in God’s world.  There are those who are the cause of the mess in the world.  There are those who benefit from the mess and would oppose any movement for change.  There are those who do not care and would not take part in anything.  There are also those who would just wait for whatever happens.  And there are those who would swing from one side to another, depending on what would benefit them.     

This story might appear to present a simple choice between action and words; that results or actions are more important than promises or words.  We may think that the first/older son is the better one who was honest with his NO, then relented and obeyed his father; whereas the younger/second son lied with his YES to save face, but followed his own agenda and disobeyed his father.

There is an interesting point, however.  In the culture of Jesus’ time, more importance was given to reputation and social standing – i.e. the honor or reputation of the father was very important.  In the context of a small Jewish community, where everyone knew what was happening, the choices/responses of the two sons to their father’s request would have easily spread like gossip.  In such a context, the honest refusal/denial of the older son’s NO would have been seen by the public as embarrassing to the father; while the lie of the younger son’s YES would have been seen as at least showing respect to the father.  So by popular understanding, the older son dishonored his father's standing in the community while the younger son honored his father's reputation.  Thus, in the mind of the audience in Jesus' time, the younger son was the better one.

But Jesus posed his question not to focus on the reputation of the father or the moral conduct of the sons, but on the issue of obedience to the will of the Father.  Jesus did not ask who the better son was, or how the father was honored or not.  Rather, Jesus asked, “Who obeyed the will of the father?”  And obedience means doing the work in the Father’s vineyard, in God’s world. 

If we were to re-tell this story today, with this background in mind, it might be something like this:  A man had two sons.  He told one son who was well respected by the people because of his education, training, and profession: “Please go and work in the vineyard today.  It is such a mess and there is so much work to be done.”  The son said, “Of course, Father, you can count on me as always.”  He did go to the vineyard – where he conducted worship and scripture study, made sure that people strictly followed the religious rules of rituals and purity.  But the vineyard was still a mess; there was much work to be done. 

So the father approached the other son – who was a friend of and spent much time with the despised in society, e.g. the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the lepers: “Please go and work in the vineyard today.  It is such a mess and there is so much work to be done.”  At first, this son said, “Of course not, Father.  How do you expect me to clear all that mess?”  He started to walk away, but then decided to take a second look, had a change of heart, and did the work that needed to be done.

What this re-telling tries to show is that God calls all God’s children – no matter who they are or what their positions in society may be.  God calls all of them to do the needed work in the vineyard, in God’s messed up world.  Those who were expected to do the work may end up not doing the work; while those who were not expected to do the work may end up doing it.  There may be those who think they are doing the work – just like the son who conducted worship and scripture study and followed the rules of ritual and purity.   As Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  So there can be surprises as to who are truly obedient and who will then enter the kingdom of heaven. 
 
So what is the true obedience that pleases God?  More than making promises to God, which may look good, the true obedience that pleases God is the doing of God’s will in the vineyard, in God’s world.  We church-going people tend to make all kinds of promises to God, e.g. to grow as faithful disciples, to follow the commandments, to carry out the mission of the church, to continue Christ’s work in the world, etc.  But obedience can be better seen and felt through works that are life-giving, life-enhancing, and life-transforming.  In John 14:12 (my favorite verse), Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and in fact will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” 

The vineyard is a symbol for the world that awaits the work of God’s children in obedience to God’s will.  God’s will is life in its fullness for all, not only for a few but for all.  The world, God’s vineyard, is quite messy to this today.  There are many disasters like earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, wars, acts of terrorism, emergence of diseases, violations of human rights, broken and abused relationships, and so on.  Here in Hong Kong, we have an ongoing struggle for democracy – in which many critical thinking students have actively joined – despite risks to their studies, their future, and even their lives.  I do not know what form of faith or spirituality is behind their acts of resistance.  But I believe that what they are doing is a form of engagement for genuine transformation in this part of the world.  Watching the news last night and how these students were harshly handled despite their being peaceful and non-violent, I was again reminded of how costly is the journey to genuine transformation in this messed up world.  Those of us who profess to be disciples or students of Christ Jesus know that the cost/price of obedience can even be the cross!  The letter to the Philippians (2:1-13) reminds us of this so powerfully – to have an attitude that is the same as that of Christ Jesus: taking the nature of a servant, humble and obedient to death, even death on the cross.  While there will always be some people who say that transformation cannot be done, they should not interrupt or oppose those who are doing it.  We have to look at the democratic movement that is going on in this spirit.       

And so the parable of the two sons is not just about these two boys or two young men and how they fared as sons of their Father.  It is really about you and me and our place in God’s world.  That we are among the many children of the one God, no matter what religion or faith we may follow or profess.  We are all called to do our part of the work in this messed up vineyard, which is God’s world, and entrusted to us to be our home.  Rather than making promises, which are easily made and also easily forgotten or broken, we are called to do the work in obedience to God’s will of abundant life, life in fullness for all, in whatever capacity we can do.  We can do this by having the same attitude and the same mind as that of Christ Jesus.

Last Sunday, during our 90th anniversary service, Pastor Phyllis Wong mentioned in her sermon how difficult it is for us to have the same mind.  And because we are so diverse and think differently we have agreed to disagree peacefully.  But today’s text is calling us to strive to grow into having the same mind, the same love, being one in spirit and purpose as that of Christ Jesus.  We can do this by striving to think about the interests of the other rather than our own selfish interests.  We are happy that our church continues to sponsor events that promote the welfare of many people who are discriminated against in society.  Some of us may not agree with all that our Pastors are trying to do to support these activities.  But these are all part of our striving to grow into the same mind and attitude as Christ Jesus.  This is our task as we continue to live out the mission of Kowloon Union Church.   


Let us pray:
Gracious God, may we open our lives to your leading – that we may grow into being of the “same mind, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose,” being humble and obedient to your will as we do our share of the work in your vineyard, your world which you entrusted to us as our home.  Amen. 

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 28, 2014

 

“Where All Are One — Celebrating, Praising and Serving”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 21 September 2014 for the thanksgiving service of the 90th anniversary of KUC by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 16:215, Philippians 1:2130 and John 17:1124.


The theme of the church’s celebration to her 90th anniversary is “Where All Are One – Celebrating, Praising and Serving”.

“Where all are one” has been the motto of Kowloon Union Church for decades.

The biblical basis for the church motto is taking from Gospel John 17. Jesus prayed for his disciples and the faith community to be united with each another as One in Christ and be union with God as One through Christ.

I would like to share a few incidents in which I experienced ‘Where All Are One” in my ministry at Kowloon Union Church in the past seven years.

Some years ago, a Muslim man came to pray in the church. He used to take off his shoes and prayed bare foot in the sanctuary and read the bible from the pew. One day, he asked me if he should come to pray. I asked why he had this question. He said, “it seems that I am offending your God as I am praying to my God and not your God according to the bible I read from the pew.” I was a bit shocked and tried to figure out what to say. Then I was inspired and I asked this man, “do you have peace when you are praying in this sanctuary?” He said, “Yes pretty much. I find peace while I am here.” I replied with a smile and said “Go ahead to pray here. This is the House of God for everyone, who is seeking peace from the loving God who is the Creator to us all.” Later he bought his Pakistan Christian friend who was working in Hong Kong but was having some problem and we prayed together. 

In one of the wedding ceremony that I conducted, a groom burst into tears when he shared after the Service. He was divorced and thus many churches refused to marry him in their church sanctuary. He wanted a church wedding because he wanted to witness God’s love and grace in his life and to pledge his commitment to his new marriage. He had been rejected and felt very hurt. He was thankful that in the end he was accepted and blessed by having his church wedding at KUC.

This spirit of Oneness should be shared among all people regardless of their religion, marital background, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on.

Being inclusive is thus a key to walk in the journey of Oneness in Christ and acceptance is the essence of “Where All Are One.”

A last incidence I share. I received an email from a member who disagreed with what I have said in my sermon one Sunday. On and off, I received feedback from the congregation on the approach and position I take on certain issues such as refugee and homosexuality. We don’t necessarily share the same view and the same way of doing things.

“Where All Are One” does not imply we are the same. We have to admit we are different.

“Where All Are One” is to challenge us in the midst of difference and opposition, we listen and speak with respect. We agree to disagree is a phrase I learnt in KUC. It is indeed very challenging to agree to disagree because quite often, we think we are better and smarter than others. If we all admit that we are human beings and we cannot always be right; that we make mistakes, big and small, in our lives. We would then have more wisdom to handle differences and conflicts. We would also lead a happier life. 

KUC has been a very diverse congregation. We have members and friends from over 20 countries of different denominations, cultures, traditions, races, and nationalities. Diversity is indeed a gift from God. The creative tensions in people’s differences may help us to grow and enrich our lives. But we can benefit it only if we cherish diversity and humbly embrace it. 

To acknowledge diversity is a gift from God and being humble is a key to walk in this journey of “Where All Are One”.

“Where All Are One” is beautiful and admirable. But it is never easy to practice. We should never romanticize this. Sinful human nature and imperfect world make it difficult if not impossible. Perhaps that’s why Jesus finds it so important to pray for his disciples and the Christian community. The disciples and church in his time were facing tremendous challenges. As we do also in our World and in many churches.

KUC, a church which is admired by many people for her inclusivity and welcoming character, sometime we have our own problems and conflicts within us. The world we are living in is full of conflicts too. Conflicts seem to be part of our life realities. Feelings hurt and relationship broken if people cannot resolve their conflicts constructively and peacefully.

If there is brokenness in relationship in church and in the world, we would be far from being One. Therefore, it is necessary to seek healing and reconciliation when we are journeying in the road of “Where All Are One”.  

Healing and reconciliation is the way the people from a faith community have to go as we walk with Jesus as One Body in Christ.

As Christ’s disciples and church, we are called to bring reconciliation. As I quote from 2 Cor 5:17-18, “So if everyone 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....”

In a broken world, Oneness is not easy to achieve. But Jesus Christ who prays for our union with each other and with God has given us hope and strength.

I hope and pray that ‘Where All Are One’ is not only a motto to KUC and should never be reduced to a slogan. Let us together walk in the way of Jesus Christ and to suffer for him as shared by Apostle Paul with the church in the Philippians.

“Where All Are One” …. is a spiritual journey, let us be united in Christ, to learn and to grow, to love and to serve each other as forgiving, humble and compassionate persons.

“Where All Are One”…. is a mission of every Christian and church, let us manifest God’s glory by proclaiming Christ’s saving act, to bring love, reconciliation, liberty, unity, and life of wholeness to all.  


“Where All Are One” is a gift from God to everyone. When our life manifest Christ’ glory like Jesus revealed God’s glory in his suffering and sacrifice on the cross, we may be one with God and with one another.  Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 21, 2014

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