Reflections...

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

“The Feast of Heaven”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 28 August 2016, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrew 13:1-8, 15-16;  Luke 14:1, 7-14.


Opening prayer

God of love, may your Word inspire our minds, renew our heart and strengthen our faith.

God of life, may your Spirit dwell upon us and set us free to love. Amen.  

Introduction

Last Friday night, the Peace Making Program launched the Refugee Kitchen in KUC Space to engage the refugees and asylum seekers to share their gifts of cooking in their tradition. The Refugee Kitchen aimed at raising funds for the Peace Making Program, as well as to build connections with individuals and organizations that would support the refugee community. The highlight of Refuge Kitchen last Friday was the Pakistani course. We had a very good turn out with 37 people. Our guests enjoyed the feast very much. It was a great meal with good food and good fellowship.

At the event of the Refugee Kitchen, we were sitting in different tables without any special seats for anyone. All participants are equal.

As I began with the sharing of a meal, I will focus my sermon today on the gospel reading of Luke - a parable about a banquet shared by Jesus.  The setting for this parable was Jesus having a meal with the Pharisees on the Sabbath.

The guests attending the meal were probably the rich and the people with power like the religious leaders.

By sharing the parable of a wedding banquet, Jesus said to the guests that they should not choose the seats of honour by themselves. Jesus taught the leaders and the people with social resources and power to be humble. They should wait for the host to give them seats but not take seats on their own. This was the way that they may avoid being shamed, but even more so to receive honour from the host.

For Jesus said,
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 14:11

After sharing about how the guests should behave, Jesus talked about the host and to whom he should extend his invitation to the feast.

Jesus said the host should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. The poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind are all nobody in society. The poor do not make an effort to give back any money. For the physically disabled people, they were regarded as non-human in Jesus’ time. They were not treated equally. This group of people would not repay the host anything either. On the contrary, they might even jeopardise the name of the host because of the social stigma attached to them.

In the ancient Jewish context, the rich and the powerful were concerned so much with being repaid by guests of kindness, power and status, Jesus’ assertion to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (all the socially marginalized people) as guests, is very provocative. Jesus challenged the religious leaders and the people with power and status to give generously and unselfishly to the poor and the weak. He advised them not to be calculative and expect no rewards from the guests of this background. Jesus invited them to share with compassion for these people.   

The seats of honour are decided by the hosts and not by the guests.

God who is the host of the Feast of Heaven decides what seats to give and to whom he invites.

From the teaching of Jesus, we know then that how we treat ourselves and others impacts how God treats us.

Jesus’ parable of the banquet was pointing to the rich and the powerful – teaching them to humble themselves and be generous to give for the needy who cannot repay them.

In reading between the lines, I find that this parable speaks to the poor, vulnerable and the marginalised too. The extension of invitation to them and include them in the banquet is a clear affirmation of their importance and dignity. God treated them as equal and received them as his beloved children. They are part of the Feast of Heaven.

Jesus said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 14:11

Jesus’ parable of the banquet shows us a contradiction of human reality.

I am nobody and at the same time I am somebody. This is a contradictory statement.

The statement ‘I am nobody’ is to acknowledge imperfection of the human world and the imperfect human condition of faults and failings. And thus we need to always humble ourselves.

The statement ‘I am somebody’ is pointing at a true knowledge and feeling of oneself as one is. This true self knowledge is God is our being, and we are what we are in Him. Perfect humility is meeting the mysterious love of God, who is the ground of our being. And thus we need to affirm ourselves as who we are regardless of our wealth, ability and social status, race, gender and sexual orientations.

From Jesus’ teaching through this parable of banquet, I see this deep meaning of humility. 

The Feast of Heaven is for the people of humility.

People of humility are both the guest and the host in the Feast of Heaven.

The Feast of Heaven is for the people of righteousness.

The parable of the wedding banquet reminded me of my childhood experience.

I remember my mother took me to an uncle’s birthday banquets. My uncle was quite rich, and he hosted a birthday banquet almost every year. When his sons got married, they organized wedding banquets in posh restaurants. Every time our family was invited. My mother liked to bring me to these banquets. I was lucky to have good food. Our family was poor at that time. Obviously, my parents were not able to give a lot in love gifts for the meal and never could make an effort to host them in a banquet of that scale. My uncle invited us just because he regarded us as family members. He treated us equally. From our side, apart from our respect to my uncle, he was repaid nothing from us, not by money, not by status, not by power, not even by kindness. We didn’t have the capacity and chance to do that in the way that he did. However, I believed what Jesus said:  he was blessed and repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Luke 14:13-14 (I quote)
Jesus said, 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus suggested that the host invite those who could not repay him. But he assured them he will be blessed and repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

What does it mean – repaid at the resurrection of the righteous?

Is it a reward we gain from God in heaven after we die? Could be.

But I tend to understand this promise – repaid at the resurrection of the righteous with a ‘here and now’ perspective – taking it as a ‘present tense concept’.

We Christians are called to live a life like Christ. Jesus Christ is the righteous and he has risen from death. He eternally lives in us in every moment.  Therefore, whenever we live out the Word and deeds of Jesus Christ, we are manifesting a life of resurrection in him.

More importantly, Christ living in us is the reward itself! When Christ lives in us, we have joy, peace and love in our heart.  The best reward is God himself and having Christ in us.

If we are truly living a life like Jesus Christ, we don’t even bother to seek repayment and rewards. Why? It is because Jesus did not expect any reward and repayment from us when he came to the world and suffered on the Cross to save us.

The Feast of Heaven belongs to those who seek the love of God and live out the resurrected life of Christ – being loving, caring, and full of compassion to the needy.

Conclusion

Jesus’ teaching about the banquet is not referring to any ordinary feast on earth. He is teaching about the Feast of Heaven where God and his love are the centre. 

The foretaste of the Feast of the Heaven is the Holy Communion. Jesus Christ gave and served us by his broken body and blood. The Feast of Heaven is the host of God freely and humbly given without any reservation and any expectation of repayment from us.

In the Feast of Heaven where Christ is the centre, there is no longer you or me, them or us, host or guest. We are both the host and the guest at the same time. We are ONE in Christ – we share together willingly, generously and humbly. We give without expecting rewards and repay from others.

Sisters and brothers, let us continue to host and attend the Feast of Heaven with delight in our church at Kowloon Union Church and community at large.


Let us together enjoy the feast on earth as in heaven.  Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, August 28, 2016

 

"FAITH & DOUBT"

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 21 August 2016,  the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, by Pearl Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 71:1–6; Hebrews 12:18–29; Luke 13:10–17.


Let us pray
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

Psalm 71, verses 1-6 is the beginning of a prayer that echoed the voice of the Israelites to Yahweh, their God, for lifelong protection and help.  The first impression we get from reading the first 6 lines is that, the author of this Psalm is a person of great faith because God seems to have promised him everything.  The author's faith has promised him refuge in God, deliver and rescue him from the hand of the wicked.  The author's faith has also rescued him from injustice and awarded him with hope.  It seems that the author's trust in God is unshakable, not for a second did he has doubt that God will not protect him.

I invite you to read this 6 verses again with new lens, and to imagine that this is what we call "opposite talk", that we don't really mean what we say.  Imagine what if the author is in a desperate situation, he has been praying for sometime but his situation has not improved, and he starts to question why God is silent, why God is ignoring his prayer.  Imagine that the tone of this prayer sounds like a desperate cry, a plea for help, the author is praying very loud because he wants to assure himself that God will come to his rescue, despite the fact that he has been praying for a long time and yet, his situation has not changed a bit.  In verse 2, the author exclaims, "incline your ear to me and save me."  Sounds like he is complaining to God, "why do you overlook my request, why don't you come and save me?"

If we read further down Psalm 71 to verses 9-12, the author has expressed clearly his uncertainty in his future.

"Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent. For my enemies speak concerning me, and those who watch for my life consult together. They say, pursue and seize that person whom God has forsaken, for there is no one to deliver. And verse 12, "O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!"   Here it really sounds like a frenzied petition to God.

So right now, the author is not a person of great faith anymore, rather, the author is full of doubt about what God can do to save him, he is full of uncertainties about his future, about what will happen to him next.  Now we wonder, can the author of Psalm 71 be both faithful and doubtful at the same time?

"FAITH and DOUBT are like sisters, they go hand in hand."  This is a claim I heard from the Catholic priest Tomas Halik from the Czech Republic, when he was in Hong Kong few weeks ago promoting the Chinese edition of his book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us[1].  The Chinese title of his book is called 擁抱懷疑的信仰, in English it will be something like, "Christian Faith that embraces Doubt".  Tomas Halik is a theologian, psychotherapist, painter, journalist and  has written 16 books on religion and spirituality, few of his books invite his readers to examine Christian faith in an age of uncertainty.  The ambivalent nature of the world today seems to make no sense, when violence and discrimination dominate, when exploitation and greed cause so many sufferings, Christians and atheists sometimes share a sense of God's absence from the world.  Life's many paradoxes produce phrases like , " God is silent, God is hidden, God is DEAD!"  This exactly  is the reason for Tomas Halik to reiterate that FAITH and DOUBT in Christianity is not contradictory, rather, they go hand in hand like sisters.   Many of us live in a state of  tension between  faith and doubt for most of our lives, and for some, we are in this tension every day.

In Luke 13 verses 10-17, Jesus, in which God becomes human, notices people and situations in ways that others do not.  Jesus came to save the lost, the poor, including every kind of marginalized person whom traditional religion and great leaders of faith, like the Pharisees in this parable, would put outside the boundaries.  Great leaders from Jesus' time up until today have constructed many rules that they presume would keep faith in order, or will help the seekers and doubters  affirm  their faith. However, Jesus challenges these great leaders, breaks the law, and reaches out to release the woman from her oppression.  This woman, "a bent over, unable to stand up straight, crippled, overlooked" image can represent someone who is humble, low self esteem, constantly doubtful whether  anyone,  including God, can heal her.  Jesus sees her and is filled with compassion, reaches out to her and sets her free from bondage that  afflicted her for 18 years.  Here we see that Jesus makes himself a seeker with those who seek, and a doubter with those who doubt.  

We also see that  Jesus criticizes the religious leaders who consider themselves the very faithful. These leaders value the laws above everything else, therefore, they condemn Jesus of breaking the law by healing on Sabbath.  Precisely because they focus on the little rules, they fail to see that Jesus has demonstrated THE LAW given by God, "Love your neighbor" , and that includes,  healing, liberating others from oppression, showing care and compassion, and doing justice.

Some of us, who consider ourselves the faithful, who have attended Church for a long time and serve in the church devotedly, perhaps pray and read the Bible daily, we very often follow and implement the rules blindly.  We often create boundaries that push people to the margins. We separate ourselves "the faithful" from the seekers and the doubters.

And now, let us consider another reading today, Hebrews 12 verses 14-29. First of all, the author of the book of Hebrews wants to emphasize that Christ is superior to everything that went before, and God's people can have full confidence in God's son. What also concerns the author is the possibility that some believers, under distress and adversity, will let go of Christ; abandon their trust in Christ and even have doubts about God's presence and Jesus' saving works.  Chapter 12 verses 14-29 belongs to the final part of the book of Hebrews, and this part is all about faithful perseverance.

Using the contrasting imagery of Mount Sinai and the heavenly Mount Zion here, the author affirms believers their future certainty.  The Christian community during the author's time is discouraged because of suffering and perhaps, have doubts about whether Jesus is really the Son of God who would actualize God's promise of the New Jerusalem.  Likewise, the Christian community of today  live in a world of darkness, chaos, and absurdity, our prayers do not bring us peace or comfort; our prayers do not help make things better in our society,  and we lose our patience with God.  The author of Hebrews not only writes to convince his community " not to lose faith" on Christ, and not to abandon God; he writes to remind us as well of this important message.

Are you those of great faith who have absolute trust in God's grace and providence?

Or are you those who are doubtful and uncertain about God as your refuge and your comforter?

Perhaps you are like me, living in this tension of being faithful and doubtful every day?

Perhaps we need to humble ourselves and recognize that we, followers of Christ, do not have all the answers, and definitely, we are not infallible in our faith. What is more important is to make ourselves seekers with those who seek and  question with those who question.

A community of faith that maintains the spirit of seeking, ongoing questions and uncertainties, will teach us to live with God's mystery, and not forgetting to live continually with faith, hope and love.

I now invite you to meditate on God's promise while I read Psalm 71 verses 19-21.
"You who have done great things,
O God, who is like you?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
You will bring me up again.
You will increase my honor,
and comfort me once again."   
AMEN


[1] Tomas Halik, Patience with God:The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing with Us (New York: Doubleday,2009)

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, August 21, 2016

 

“Crossing the Division”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 14 August 2016,  the thirteen Sunday after Pentecost, by Rune Nielsen. The scripture readings that day were Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56.


“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…” Jesus’ words in the twelfth chapter of Luke are scary—there’s no doubt about that. The Jesus who was the gentle shepherd, the man who shone with divine love, the one who said ‘let the children come to me’—it seems that Jesus is now telling his disciples that he is leading society towards chaos and destruction. Differences between people, whether religious, political, or economic, can lead us to division, a state of tension, distrust, and intolerance. Division is painful. It can give us feelings of fear, suspicion, rejection, and hate. In fact, the corresponding passage in Matthew 10:34-36 uses the word “sword” instead of “division.”  Truly, division can wound us deeper than any cut.

Jesus is no stranger to division. With every teaching he gave, every act of healing he performed, some people chose to distrust him or despise him. In the fifth chapter of Mark, Jesus delivers a man from demons by sending the evil spirits into the bodies of pigs, which then drown themselves in the sea. The healed man is grateful and becomes a follower of Jesus, but the other people in the town get bitter about the loss of the pigs and insist that Jesus leave. Another example of division can be seen in the fifth chapter of Luke when Jesus heals a paralytic. Jesus forgives the man’s sins and the Pharisees get angry, accusing him of blasphemy. While the Pharisees regard Jesus with disgust, the rest of the watching crowd is happy about what Jesus has done, and praise God. And there are many more stories of division springing up from the words and acts of Jesus. As stated by a Bible commentator, in today’s gospel reading “Jesus is not affirming nor encouraging the division but naming the reality that was occurring around him.” Jesus challenged religious leaders as well as believers to open their minds and hearts to his message of love for all people. This upset the status quo, which led to division.

Jesus did not say we should make division. He did not teach his followers to avoid anyone who thought differently. Jesus reached out to Samaritans, people whose practices deviated from the Jewish standard. Jesus made friends with criminals. He defended people of low social standing. When some people see differences, they put up social walls, leading to division. When God sees division, he passes through the barriers.

Differences occur as people adopt different beliefs, but division is not God’s goal. In today’s gospel reading Jesus is speaking out of a context of anguish and strife as he sees the division happening around him. This stands in contrast to how at the time of Jesus’ birth the angels were singing of peace to come, as stated at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. And when the gospel ends, the resurrected Jesus greets his disciples not with a message of division, but with “Shalom,” a word of peace.*

Since the beginning Christ’s followers have found themselves divided from other people, and so do we today. Some of us come from divided households where it is not two against three, but four against one and one against four. Painful, heart-aching division. Is this the cost of following Jesus? In drastic situations of fierce disagreement, the people we love may separate themselves from us, and other times we may feel forced to separate from them. Sometimes we cannot prevent separation, and once it happens we may feel broken and scattered from the division.

We are aware that in Hong Kong and many other parts of the world Christians are a minority group. Even if your whole family is Christian, you likely know people at school or work who are not, and probably have friends who are non-Christian. How should we view them?

When we look at the world, we know our Christian lives are different. Our beliefs are different. Our practices are different. Considering all of that, is it the fate of Christians to shut ourselves away from non-Christians? To flaunt our differences and only associate with people who believe the same things we do? Should we retreat behind the line of the divide in our own societies? I’ve met a Christian family in Hong Kong who only allows their children to associate with other Christians. Their children, who go to Christian schools, are not allowed to have non-Christian friends or go to social activities where non-Christians are present. When they see a doctor or dentist, they only choose ones that are Christian. Clearly, they are afraid of non-Christians. They use the differences between them and others to build up division.

But differences don’t have to lead to division.

When I went on a study trip to Indonesia last summer, I met a woman who lived in what could have been a divided household. She and her parents were devoutly Christian, and living with them were her devoutly Muslim aunt, uncle, and cousins. The Muslims did all the things devoted Muslims do—they worshipped at a mosque, fasted during Ramadan, prayed to Allah five times a day, and so on. The Christians did all the things devoted Christians do—they attended services at a church, read the Bible, and prayed to God. And all of these relatives live peacefully side by side, enjoying their life together. They respect each other and do not let their differences tear them apart into division. The Christian woman told me her views on her Muslim relatives. “We pray for them, as we would pray for all other people we know, both Christians and non-Christians. And we keep living our Christian lives in a display of God’s love for all people.”

Although not all families of mixed faiths are able to live in harmony like that, the example of the household in Indonesia reminds us that differences do not have to drive people away from each other, whether at home or in broader society. It also highlights the importance of prayer, taking your concerns about division to God and trusting God. While interacting with non-Christians you might not see conversions, but that doesn’t mean God has abandoned our non-Christian relatives, friends, and neighbors.

In today’s gospel reading and in our lives, differences themselves are not the real problem. According to the preacher Erick J. Thompson, we would be mistaken to focus on the differences we face. There will always be differences in all areas of life because people will disagree with each other and have different opinions. The real issue at hand is how we respond to division. Some Christians have a zeal for bringing people from one side of the divide to the other. Of course we want everyone to know God loves them! But if we are forceful about God’s message, we will only widen the gap. Thompson says that “the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.”

Of course, being Christian does not make us perfect. Jesus alone is the perfecter of our faith, not ourselves. At times we Christians are like the ancient Israelites spoken of in the book of Isaiah. Through Isaiah, God said that they were like a vineyard expected to produce edible grapes but instead produced wild ones. The Israelites were God’s chosen people, yet even they were not perfect. Christians are not superior to other people. In our own religion we worship within differences—Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic. Yet despite these differences, we have been able to cooperate to do great things. Every year on Unity Sunday representatives from different churches in Hong Kong come together for a joint worship service. Speakers from Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic churches all contribute to the Christian radio programs overseen by the Religious Broadcasting and Television Advisory Committee. And some churches are carrying out joint volunteer efforts at Christian NGOs. If we can work together with people who have denominational differences, then surely we can also work together with non-Christians.

Being around non-Christians can provide us with opportunities to reflect on our own faith. It makes us ask important questions we need to answer for ourselves and those we share our faith with. Questions include: What do I value about Christianity? Why have I chosen Christianity instead of another religion? How can I communicate Christianity to other people? When we answer these questions, we can find that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are bringing us closer to God.

Yes, there is division, but it doesn’t have to prevail over us. We can overcome division from God’s perspective, a perspective of peace for all people and prayer for reconciliation. The divide is not impassible and it is not permanent. God passes through the division and cares for Christians and non-Christians alike. On the other side of any division, Christ is also there among the nonbelievers, acting in their lives, and patiently waiting for them to follow him. God does not give up on non-Christians!

We are not always in control of division, but God’s love has no boundaries. Let us live in that love and share it with all.


*idea taken from http://revplockhart.blogspot.hk/2013/08/fire-division-not-peace.html

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, August 14, 2016

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