Reflections...

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

“Standing on the Promises”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 28 May 2017,  Ascension Sunday, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:11-23.


Good morning. Last Thursday, May 25th was a special day in the life of the church. Not KUC in particular, but the Church universal. Last Thursday was Ascension Day. It celebrates Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after his Resurrection. Ascension Day is a major feast day in many churches, falling between Easter and Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Some churches like the Catholics and Anglicans celebrate it on the Thursday, which is a public holiday in some countries. Others celebrate it three days later on the 7th Sunday of Easter, today.

I didn’t think I had ever celebrated the Ascension at Kowloon Union Church. Then Pastor Maggie reminded me that we had back in 2008 when Rev. Kwok Nai-wang was here, and she herself has preached on the Ascension. So I stand corrected. For all I know, some of you may preached on Ascension Sunday when I wasn’t around. But one thing I do know is I have never preached on the Ascension of Jesus in this pulpit or any pulpit. So I decided this morning to focus on the Scripture reading from Acts, Chapter 1 as a challenge to myself and a chance to learn something new.

One of the new things I learned right off is that churches like to do something special in worship for the Ascension. For example, every year in a Lutheran Church in the U.S., they fill up hundreds of white balloons with helium. They stuff them into big white bedsheets that have been sewn together. Eventually, the sheets began to fill out and get puffy like a giant cloud. Then they pin the clouds shut and release them to float above the sanctuary during the service. The pastor said it was a glorious sight to behold, but there were a couple of problems. One, the congregation kept looking up most of the time and ended up straining their necks. The other problem was they were so distracted by what was floating above them, they didn’t pay attention to the sermon. So this morning, I decided we’re not going for the cloud effect at KUC because one, I care about your health, and two, I want you to pay attention to the sermon!

I remember visiting the Holy Land back in the 1980s. Whenever pilgrims go there, one of the places that you’re always taken is the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mt. of Olives. This shrine is built over the very place they believe Jesus ascended to heaven. When you go inside the Chapel, there’s a slab of stone on the floor that’s said to contain one of his actual footprints – the right foot. Now, I know this is a sacred shrine, but I couldn’t help thinking at the time that it all felt like a tourist trap. How do we know that’s Jesus’ last footprint? And even if it is, what difference does it make? He’s not here anymore.

He’s not here anymore.

Thirty years later, I realize maybe that’s the point of visiting the Chapel of the Ascension, to remember where Jesus left this earth and to reflect on how and why it had to happen.

So let me share some thoughts this morning to help us make sense of an event in salvation history that the church affirms in the ancient Creeds and we can affirm in our modern hearts. For the story of the Ascension is also a story full of God’s wonderful promises – promises for earth and promise for heaven. And just like the first disciples on the Mt. of Olives, we are standing, standing, standing on the promises of God. 

Let’s start with earth. What’s the setting of the Ascension? According to Acts 1, it had been 40 days since the Resurrection. We often think of Jesus’ earthly ministry ending on Good Friday or Easter, but Acts tells us that the risen Christ spent 40 more days on earth with his disciples. He made multiple appearances in order to assure them he was alive and well, and to give them final instructions. Then it was time to say good-bye. And how did he take leave from them? Not by land. Not by sea. But by air. Acts 1:9 tells us Jesus was lifted up by a cloud and disappeared from their sight. He was taken directly up to heaven in a manner reminiscent of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament.

As 21st century Christians, we’re naturally a bit curious how that early space travel worked. Was it like the video game I heard about called Jump Jesus Jump? The risen Christ hops from cloud to cloud on his way to heaven. Well, no, because that game ends when Jesus misses a cloud and falls back down to earth. Then he has to start all over again. The real Ascension definitely was a one-way journey! And actually, we aren’t meant to know the details. That’s why there was a cloud – it was a sign of divine presence, and a way of hiding what we’re not allowed to see. All we need to know is that Jesus went to glory having completed his mission on earth.

You have to wonder, though, if those disciples on the ground were prepared for all this. Jesus had told them earlier that he must return to his Heavenly Father. But what’s the hurry? Remember they were traumatized after his death on the Cross. They believed all hope was gone. Now here he was back from the grave, just as he had foretold. Why must he go so soon? How could his work be finished when the Jews were still living under foreign occupation? Remember the last question they asked: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus surprised them with his answer: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, that’s not your concern, that’s God’s business. Then Jesus surprised them again, this time with a promise: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In other words, get ready. It’s your turn now.

Can you see why Jesus needed to go away? As long as he was bodily present with his disciples, they would depend on him to lead the way. As long as his footprints were in Palestine, his disciples would never take their feet beyond the bounds of their own homeland and religion. In reality, the Ascension is not the end of Jesus’ mission but the start of the Church’s mission. In short, Jesus had to leave so the Church could begin. Or in the immortal words of St. Augustine: “Without God [we] can’t, but without [us] God won’t.”

So that’s one reason Jesus had to leave but that’s not all. Remember the Ascension’s not just about Jesus “going away”. It’s also about Jesus “going up”. Which brings us another promise. As Jesus was being lifted up on the cloud, two men in white robes appear beside the disciples. We assume they are angels, perhaps the very ones who spoke to the women at the empty tomb. And what do they say? “Gentlemen, what are you staring at? Jesus has gone to heaven, but we promise he’s coming back just the way you saw him leave.” He’s gone to heaven but we promise he’s coming back to get you.

Rosalind Brown of Durham Cathedral says, “Resurrection and ascension belong together. If there were no ascension, we would know that God raised Jesus from the dead but have no firm hope for ourselves…. The ascension completes the incarnation the Second Person of the Trinity who took on human flesh and was born among us has taken humanity into heaven, opening the door for us to enter heaven too.”[1]

Think about that. The risen Christ returned to heaven carrying a piece of our humanity with him. Isn’t that amazing? Sitting at the right hand of God is a Savior with nail scarred hands, a Master who washed dirty feet, a King who once wore a crown of thorns. He knows the world we live in inside and out – a world still hell-bent on living by the sword and dying by the sword, a world that exploits our pain and fears and mocks our sorrow and tears, a world daring anyone to come singing a song of love, faith, hope and peace. But that’s exactly what Jesus did. And because he did and lived to tell the tale, we have his promise that wherever we go, he has gone before us. And wherever he goes, he will come back and take us with him.

Let me tell a story to make that point crystal clear. It’s been around for a while, but it’s worth telling again. It reminds me of the parable of the Good Samaritan, so I call it the parable of the Good Friend.

A man had fallen into a deep pit and injured himself. Once he comes to his senses, he realizes there’s no way to get out by himself. It’s too deep to climb out, there are no ropes or ladders. But he can see the sky and hear noises above. “Help!” he yells when hears footsteps passing by. It’s a minister. The minister comes over to the hole, looks down, writes out a prayer, drops it in and leaves.

The man is distraught. “What am I going to do now?” Then he hears more footsteps. It’s a doctor. “Hey, get me out this hole!” the man calls. The doctor walks over and looks in the pit. Then she writes out a prescription and an exercise plan, drops it in the hole, and keeps on walking.

By this point, the man is beside himself. Finally, he hears one more person walking near. “Hello! I’m down here! Please help me!” It turns out to be his friend. “Oh, praise the Lord,” the man says. The friend stops, looks down the hole, and then jumps into the pit himself.

The man is furious. “What’s the matter with you?” he screams. “Now we’re both in this hole!”

“Yes,” said the friend. “But I’ve been here before. I know the way out.”

Wherever we go, he has gone before us. Wherever he goes, he will come back and take us with him. Praise the Lord.

I’d like to end this sermon where we started – at the Chapel of the Ascension in the Holy Land. As we said, this is the place that commemorates the last spot on earth that Jesus stood. But I had never realized it also marks the place where the faithful believe that Jesus will land when he comes again. Though the angels didn’t mention an exact location for the Second Coming, it does make sense. If someone has gone missing, wouldn’t you go back to the last place he was seen to look for him? But Jesus of course wasn’t really missing in action. He was just on home assignment. And his disciples weren’t supposed to stay on the Mt. of Olives waiting for him anyway.

But you couldn’t blame them if they had wanted to. After all, once Jesus was taken out of their sight, the picture didn’t look that great, on the surface. The great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, there they were: “11 abandoned disciples with nothing to show for all their following. But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent what had happened to them. With nothing but a promise and a prayer, those 11 people consented to become the church, and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them. The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers. The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, and nothing was ever the same again.”[2]

So today, clouds or no clouds, let’s join our hearts with Christians around the world to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, including with those who do so on the Mount of Olives to this very day. One Franciscan brother who lives in the Holy Land wrote in his blog at the conclusion of their services: “Many pilgrims climbed to the Chapel of the Ascension throughout the afternoon, night and early morning hours, finding there, along with a spirit of prayer, true joy. A wonderful way to enter into the waiting for Pentecost.” A wonderful way indeed. AMEN.




[1] Rosalind Brown, Sermon: Ascension Day, May 9, 2013. https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/worshipandmusic/sermon-archive/ascension-day
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Day We Were Left Behind,” Christianity Today, May 18, 1998. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/may18/8t6046.html

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, May 28, 2017

 

Jesus' Modern Family

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 14 May 2017, Mother’s Day, by Pearl Wong. The scripture readings that day were Luke 8:19-21.


  Today is Mother's Day, a celebration honouring the mother of the family, as well as motherhood. The role of mother is often seen as the caregiver of a family, therefore, I would suggest that Mother's day is also to honour all those who are in the role of caregivers in our families, as well as in our communities.
  This year, United Nations has designated May 15  as International Day of Families, focusing on the role of families and family-oriented policies in promoting education and overall well-being of their members. The Day will highlight the importance of all caregivers in families, be it grandparents, parents, homemakers, working  parents, single parent, domestic helpers, etc.
 And then May 17 is IDAHOT, International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. This year, IDAHOT global theme also focuses on "families". Just 2 days ago, an event called Asia-Pacific Rainbow Families Forum was held in Hong Kong  to raise the awareness of the existence of rainbow families in the Asia-Pacific region, and also highlight the importance of family support. Personal experiences from Australia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines and Thailand were shared in advocating for the urgent need for recognition, protection and equal treatment of rainbow families and LGBTI people.
You are probably wondering by now, what is "rainbow families"?  I think the American television sitcom "Modern Family" will help to explain this.
  Modern Family premiered in 2009 and is now into its seventh season. This show is highly popular and has won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series five times in a role.
  Modern Family revolves around three different types of families nuclear, step- and same-sex, who are interrelated through the main characters : Jay Pritchett and his children, Claire Dunphy (née Pritchett) and Mitchell Pritchett. Jay is remarried to a much younger woman, named Gloria, a passionate Colombian with whom he has an infant son, named Joe, and a son from Gloria's previous marriage, Manny. Jay's daughter Claire was a homemaker, but has returned to the business world; she is married to Phil Dunphy, a realtor and self-professed "cool Dad". They have three children: Haley, a stereotypical ditzy teenage girl, Lex, a nerdy, smart middle child;  and Luke, the off-beat only son. Jay's lawyer son Mitchell and his husband Cameron (what we usually call a gay couple) have an adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily.
All the names and their relationships sound complicated, right? Well, it doesn't matter if you remember these at all. As the name suggests, this family represents a modern-day family and episodes are comically based on situations which many families encounter in real life. The diversities we find in the family members of this television sitcom in terms of culture, ethnicity, gender identities, gender expressions, sexual orientations and even the role of caregivers represent what we call "Modern Family" or "Rainbow family" in our world today, and look around us, we can likely see a "modern family" among people whom we know.
  However, such existence of "modern or rainbow family" seems to be in contrast to what we have been told by the society, and also by many churches of what a normal "nuclear" family unit should be, and that is, a family with legally married heterosexual couple,  the husband of one wife during their lifetime, and then their biological children, preferably grown up to be heterosexuals as well.  It seems that our society and churches use a lot of effort to defend a dualistic framework on ethical issues such as family, everything has to be either right or wrong, black or white; there is no grey area and no third option.
Many Christians will then ask, what does the Bible say about this and that? Let us now take a closer look at the concepts of "family" according to Jesus as written in the Gospels.
  New Testament scholar Deirdre Good draws our attention to the diverse family values according to Jesus and also the different concepts of "families"  in the New Testament.
  Matthew chapter 1 clearly states that Jesus' family is diverse - Mary is his biological mother, Joseph is his adopted father, since Mary is conceived from the Holy Spirit, God would be his biological father.  And there are Jesus'  other siblings who we don't know much about.
  Mark describes the tension between Jesus and his family, because his family cannot accept his radical thoughts nor his zealous actions.
In chapter 3 : verses 31-35, when Jesus' mother and brothers wanted to see him, " he replied, 'Who are my mother and my brothers?'
And looking at those who sat around him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'" This shows that Jesus' concept of family goes beyond blood ties!
   Luke 14:26 tells us what people has to do to become Jesus' disciples. "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple."  Surely Jesus does not ask us to renounce our families, rather, he demands us to share love with others beyond our own family.
   In John 4: verses 7-30, Jesus challenged the societal norm and talked to a Samaritan woman. During Jesus' time, a woman who has had five husbands, married and divorced several times, makes her a shameful woman, not worthy to have a private conversation with Jesus, the Rabbi.
Despite of their difference in social status, Jesus did not discriminate the woman, rather, Jesus treated her as equal and carried on their conversation, and even blessed her.  Jesus treats the divorced moms, single moms, and moms with "alien status" in Hong Kong  just as precious as anyone else.
  Furthermore, in  John 19: 26 and 27, Jesus told his beloved disciple to take care of his mother, and he told his mother to treat the disciple as his own son. Again, Jesus  calls us to go beyond blood ties and to love one another as our own family.
  And finally, the Greek word oikos  means household, the household of God, and it should include biological families with blood ties, families not with blood ties, families by adoption,
and families make up of different genders and sexualities, race, class, age, ability, etc. 
God's household also  includes ecology : the relationships between the air, land, water, animals, plants and humanity.
  The few examples I have quoted from the Bible affirm us that Jesus' family is not what people would call wholesome and flawless, his family values are not conventional nor exclusive, instead, they are diverse which goes beyond blood ties; transcends borders and race.
After we have taken a closer look at the concepts of "family" according to Jesus, next step is how do we relate these concepts to our world today?
  Today, when most churches still defend the only acceptable family value is "a family with legally married heterosexual couple, the husband of one wife during their lifetime, and their biological children", such is an exclusive and narrow interpretation of "family",
and obviously opposite to what Jesus affirms as "family values"  which I have just explored with you. I like to suggest that these churches to welcome all types of families to Jesus' table, to drink wine and break bread together. In doing so, we are both participants and witnesses of the diverse community of disciples that followed Jesus everywhere as we read in the Bible.
   As community of faith, we have to address the realities in our society, empathize with people struggling with different situations among us, and recognize the multitude of different family types. We also have to respect people who choose to be single, not to get married, not to have children; people who are divorced, widowed, single parent, and same sex couples who raise up children together. 
We should stop building wall that divides people into normal and abnormal, or create binary opposites such as conventional and subversive family values that pushes people to the margins.  
  Perhaps we need to be more conscious of the complexities  of the world which we live in and the injustice that it breeds. And perhaps, base on Jesus' teachings on love and justice, we can embrace the traditional families, the modern families, the rainbow families, and celebrate together
  Love Makes A Family : regardless of who are the family members. We are all members in Jesus' family, we are all ready to share love for one another.


Let us pray.
Almighty God, through your Holy Spirit you created unity in the midst of diversity;
We acknowledge that human diversity is an expression of your manifold love for your creation;
We confess that in our brokenness as human beings we turn diversity into a source of alienation, injustice, oppression, and wounding.
Empower us to recognize and celebrate the different types of families as your great gift to the human family.
Enable us to be the architects of understanding, of respect and love;
Through the Lord, the ground of all unity, we pray.

Help us to build bridges across all that divides us;
Unite us and  we rejoice in our diversity.
And at one in our witness to your peace,
A rainbow to your glory,
Amen. 

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, May 14, 2017

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