Reflections...

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

Make Way!

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9 April 2017, by Dr. Hope S. Antone, on Palm Sunday. The scripture readings that day were Matthew 21:1-11.


Hosanna! Save us!

Many churches use this greeting on Palm Sunday as they recall the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem. But what is triumphant about his entry with people’s shouts of hosanna, waving of palms, and laying down of cloaks, while he comes riding on a donkey?

Do you remember what Hosanna means?

The Contemporary English Version (CEV) of the Bible translates Matthew 21:9 this way: Hooray for the Son of David! God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hooray for God in heaven above!” The CEV uses Hooray as the equivalent of Hosanna in today’s context. ‘Hooray’ is an expression of pleasure, excitement or approval. I remember shouting that word during my Girl Scout days, and then as a member of the cheering team in college. But it does not quite fit with Hosanna. In countries ruled by monarchy, a common greeting during the entrance or arrival of the Queen or King is: “Long live the Queen or King.” But again, “Hosanna” is much more than Long live….

“Hosanna” consists of two Hebrew words (“Hoshiah Na”) which can be translated as “Save us now!” More than a greeting or cheer, it is a loud call or request for help. I would say it is a prayer for help. The Bible has stories of people calling on their king for help (e.g. 2 Samuel 14:4;  2 Kings 6:26). Spreading cloaks and tree branches on the road was a common way of welcoming a king in ancient time. So did the people regard or acknowledge Jesus as King?

Why did Jesus choose to ride on a borrowed donkey? Let us turn to the KUC donkey for a moment. [I want to thank our brother, Tong Chong Sze, for creating the donkey for the family talk today. A picture of this donkey has reached Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the United Kingdom – not for quality control, but to share the labor of love behind the preparation for Palm Sunday with our Pastor Maggie and with Pastor Phyllis and Tong’s son.]

In Bible times, the donkey was a very helpful animal, in farm work, and as a means of transportation. Donkeys carried heavy load such as sacks of grain, baskets of food and provisions. Donkeys carried people too. Rich people (Abraham, Abigail), leaders like judges and kings (Solomon) have been described as owning and riding on their donkeys. The donkey was understood as a symbol of peace time. King Solomon rode on a donkey during his crowning as king. Whereas the horse was seen as a symbol of war time, for it carried the king and his army to battle.

However, Jesus did not ride on his own donkey. He rode on borrowed donkey. In fact, in Matthew’s version he specifically asked for a donkey and its young colt, which had never been ridden before. Can you imagine a young donkey (less than a year old) that had not been ridden before, and is made to carry a 33-year old man? 

What makes Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday triumphant? Was it because the people recognized Jesus as a king? In Matthew 21:11 we read that when some people asked, “Who is this?” the crowds responded, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

What is triumphant about Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem when we know that the Palm Sunday’s shouts of “Hosanna” would change to Good Friday’s shouts of “Crucify him”?

I have heard some preachers speak about people’s disillusionment when they realized that Jesus did not meet their expectation of a political messiah. But there were also those among the powerful who considered Jesus a threat and had been waiting for a good reason to arrest him.          

I have also heard some preachers say that Jesus’ choice of the donkey was to show his message of peace, humility, and gentleness. That his work involved hardship and difficulty. That there would be some wildness or freshness about his vision or way of doing things (as signified by a young colt that had not been ridden before). Or that the inclusion of the young colt signified inclusivity. The young donkey could mean that Christ’s mission is not only for a select few who are experienced, mature persons. Rather, it is a mission that would include the young and inexperienced too.  

I like the idea of Fr. Michael K. Marsh, a priest of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of West Texas, that the triumphal entry of Jesus cannot be confined to that day of his entry into Jerusalem after doing his ministry outside of the city. In a sermon on Palm Sunday in 2010, he wrote:

“God’s entry into human life and history is the triumphal entry. Jesus’ life itself is the triumphal entry. Jesus’ movement from Mary’s womb to Bethlehem’s manger is a triumphal entry. Every point where Jesus’ life and ministry intersects with the reality of our lives becomes a point of triumphal entry. The triumphal entry is Jesus bringing good news to the poor, healing the brokenhearted, giving sight to the blind, release to the captive, letting the oppressed go free. The triumphal entry is Jesus including the outcast, setting a place at the banquet for the unacceptable, forgiving sinners, loving the enemy, giving life to the dead. Everywhere he goes Jesus tramples the cloaks that hide the fullness of life. Everywhere he goes he reveals new life, new hope, new possibilities.”

So Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a reminder for us of our need for God’s entry into our life once again, and especially today – when the world is full of turmoil because conflicts and wars; when lives are wasted by terrorism and hate; when the earth is hurting due to abuse and we reap the consequences of global warming and climate change (which is very real, not fake); when our leaders are falling short of their promises to bring about change; when our young people find no space or meaning to uphold their ideals and dreams; and the list can go on.

Palm Sunday is a day to remember that Jesus wants to enter our lives as individuals and as communities. He does not need a red carpet, in lieu of the cloaks of old. He does not need a state limousine or a pope mobile, in lieu of the donkey of old. He definitely does not need bright and colorful confetti to be thrown from a tall building, in lieu of the palms of old. He only wants to enter our open, humble and willing hearts – so we can become his hand and feet today. But in order for him to enter, we have to make way for him. Making way means clearing a path for him to get in; it means making room or space for him to stay.

Laying down the cloaks to make a path for Christ to walk through is a good symbol of our need to divest ourselves of those things that cover, comfort and protect us – so we can really join him in his mission journey.

As you may know, the Worship Committee of Kowloon Union Church planned a whole Lenten Season observance with the theme, “Journey with Jesus through the Wilderness.” Our sermons, family talks and Bible studies during these past weeks were attempts at showing what it means to make way for Christ Jesus to enter our lives so we can journey with him through the wilderness. Although Christ Jesus has taken the initiative to enter our lives, making way for that entry to happen still requires effort on our part.

As you may have noticed, we have this wilderness imagery in front of us. It started with a barren tree and a brown cloth. Then each Sunday in Lent, we added a symbol to this wilderness. First is the stone for the reality of temptations and other obstacles in life. Second is the pinwheel for the presence of the wind or the Spirit that blows where it will. Third is the water jar to quench our thirst, not only physical thirst but more so our spiritual thirst. Fourth is the sleep mask to symbolize our need for healing from blindness. Blindness here is not so much physical blindness because the physically blind people can see more than those of us with eyesight. We are talking about spiritual blindness. And fifth is the unrolled piece of cloth for freedom from death and despair. Wilderness represents those critical moments in our life when we are faced with temptations, confronted by uncertainty, or when we realize our deep spiritual thirst, admit our spiritual blindness, and when we are challenged by the reality of death and despair. Making way for Jesus means recognizing our need for him to help us go through this wilderness of our lives. Interestingly, it is during those low points in our lives that we can feel more strongly the sustaining power of God’s love and grace. It is a power that we may not easily notice because it does not come in the way of a strong force that will change things quickly or drastically.

[We learned that while Pastor Maggie is a patient at the Queen Mary Hospital, she is also ministering to the other patients at the ward. This is the kind of power from God that enables one to care for others even though she also needs care.] 

As we will see through Christ’s own passion this holy week, his triumph is through embracing vulnerability, risk, and suffering, knowing that God would never leave him alone.

Let us make way for Christ Jesus to enter our lives so that we can be like him, embracing our vulnerability, including the risk and suffering that it may bring. Let us make way for his entry for he would never leave us alone. 

Hosanna! Save us now!

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, April 09, 2017

 

The Mystery of Death

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2 April 2017, the fifth Sunday in Lent, by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were John11:1-45.


Opening prayer:
God of life, may your Word give us light to know the mystery of death that leads us to eternal life. May the Holy Spirit open the eyes of our hearts to see and understand. Amen.

Death is a harsh reality for all of us. It is not an easy topic to talk about. In Chinese culture, death is always a taboo. Therefore, many people do not say the word ‘death’ directly. Instead they will say ‘the person has slept, has gone, has departed, or is not here anymore’.

Is death an issue to you at all?

To many people, death generates a lot of fear and sorrow. Fear of emptiness. Fear of loneliness and uncertainty. Fear of separation forever with the beloved and the despair due to the loss.

The first time I had strong feeling on death was the passing of my younger brother. He died three days after a motorcycle accident.

Like Mary and Martha, I was so unprepared for my brother’s death. I asked God why did he die so soon? He was so young - just thirty-three years old!

I was in grief and in despair like Mary and Martha at the death of their brother.

Death that is unexpected, that we are unprepared for is so hard to take even if you are a Christian.
But my brother’s sudden death has given me a lesson. Since I don’t know when my life may end, I have to live well every day.

When we know we are mortal, life is limited. We have no clue when our lives will end. We then had better live well in the present moment. It is foolish to spend time to regret and mourn for the past or worry about tomorrow. It is wise to live fully the present moment. In facing the reality of death in human life, it is better to set priorities and to live a life that may bring eternal meaning. Henri Nouwen has given a very good perspective on death in one of his books  Daybook of wisdom and faith – Bread for the journey. He talked about to die well. Here I quote:

“We will die one day. That is one of the few things we can be sure of. But will we die well? That is less certain. Dying well means dying for others, making our lives fruitful for those we leave behind. The big question, therefore, is not ‘what I can still do in the years I have left to live?’ but ‘how can I prepare myself for my death so that my life can continue to bear fruit in the generations that will follow?’ Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well.”

Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well. One of the mysteries and wisdom that death inspires in us, is to live well now and allow our life to continue to bring goodness to others.

The sermon today on death is in particular meaningful. There is a funeral service held in our church this afternoon.  This funeral service is for Dr Ekman Tam. He is a well-known spiritual director and trainer in Hong Kong. He wrote many articles and books on Christian spirituality. He worked before in Tao Fung Shan Christian Spirituality Center.

Last year I finished a three year course on Spiritual Direction and Christian Contemplative Spirituality with the Institute of Christian Contemplative Spirituality. Ekman was the Chair of this Institute and the key trainer for this course. He had provided for us very solid training and spiritual guidance. He had pointed to us the way of eternal life – that is to be union with God and to live a life in God’s  love. He always reminds us to be spiritually awake – knowing that we are God’s beloved children. God lives in us and we live in God always, beyond time and space.

Ekman lived a life in full and bore fruits by nurturing life and souls for the people of God. He wrote many books. In the last few years he had been very sick. But he lived every day in full. He did his best to look for medical treatment to get healed. Meanwhile he continued to work – teaching, giving talks and writing books. In the past three years, he published four books on prayer and spirituality. Another book is coming up. Ekman our respectful teacher, son of God, lived well and died well. I see the living Christ lived in him. His life has revealed God’s glory. He has set a good example for us. To die well and to live well.

Ekman died the next day after he was admitted to the hospital. His passing was unexpected – too quick! But he had been so prepared. He strongly believed in his identity -  he is God’s beloved son. He had graciously received from God the eternal love and eternal life. He is thus able to rest in God’s everlasting peace.
Ekman’s wife Jennifer is also so ready and prepared. From the perspective of human flesh, of course she missed him and she cried. Jesus who is divine dwelling in human flesh was weeping and spiritually disturbed when he faced the death of  Lazarus and the sorrow amongst his friends.

Jennifer is also a spiritual director. Her spirituality is very deep too. Her strong faith in God and knowing that her husband is in God and with God has given her deep consolation. Her presence in God and her spirit in union with God give to her deep inner peace.

Both Ekman and Jennifer firmly believe that our spirit is forever connected to God. Therefore, there is life beyond the mortal human body. Jennifer once said to me, there is no death in God. Death is only a transformation of life into different form. Their deep spiritual insight on death and understanding on the mystery of death have brought them life, peace and freedom.

I then see how Jesus’ powerful Word about death and resurrection lives in them, the people of faith.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26a)

As for Jesus, there is no doubt that he died well and lived well. His words and his deeds to his disciples were remarkable. He did not only nurture the life and faith of the disciples in his time. His life gives light to his believers like us today. Jesus in his miracle to raise Lazarus from the death, he did it for the sake of his friends he loved and the people God cared for. As he said, the miracle was to reveal his identity as God’s Son and so they would believe that he was God’s sent Messiah.

There is commentary saying Jesus raised Lazarus to life to foretell his own resurrection. Could be. But I would like to bring up another perspective.

The essence of the miracle is not just about Jesus’ power of resurrection in raising the dead to life, the miracle is about the people in believing in Jesus, the incarnated God on earth. Jesus in his human flesh carried God’s spirit and eternal life in him. Only when we see and believe in his divinity and the spirit beyond his human body, we then realize the mystery of death – the everlasting life in God and with God.

In the same way, if we believe that we, our loved ones and all children of God who are created in God’s holy image bear God’s spirit, we are never separated in life and in life after death. We are all One, forever connected, beyond time and space and beyond human form.

We have entered into the 5th week in Lent. In our Lenten theme this year - Journeying with Jesus through the wilderness, death is definitely a major life trial we have to go through.
In this coming week, a challenge and an invitation extended to you is, to write and or to meet with a friend who is dealing with the despair of a personal loss, or friends who are facing the threat of death due to illness.  In your action, remember to go with God, let the living Christ and living spirit be present in you.
To close my sermon, I would like you to meditate on this scripture verse:

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26a)



# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, April 02, 2017

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