A sermon preached at Kowloon Union
Church on Sunday 1 October 2017, World Communion Sunday, by Bruce Van Voorhis. The scripture
readings that day were Exodus 1:8–2:10, Romans 12:1–8, Matthew 16:13–20.
God of life and of love, may the
meditations of my heart, of my mind and of my spirit be acceptable and pleasing
to you, and may they faithfully express the wisdom you have given to each one
of us. In your Son’s name, we pray. Amen.
Gospel reading in Matthew this morning, Jesus asks his disciples a number of
questions, among which is, Who do people believe is the Son of Man? They reply with
a variety of answers that some people say it’s John the Baptist, Elijah and
Jesus asks them the most significant question in today’s scripture readings: “But
who do you say that I am?”
responds that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s reply
is based on his experience of being part of Jesus’ ministry and Peter’s relationship
with God, for it was because of Peter’s relationship with God that he
recognized the Divine in Jesus.
“But who do
you say that I am?” is an important question for us today as well, especially
on this World Communion Sunday. Because we’ve come to church on a regular basis
and have possibly grown up in the church and attended Sunday school since our
childhood, etc., our response would most likely echo that of Peter. However, we
have not had the privilege of physically being with Jesus and of experiencing
him and his life and his teachings. For us, the New Testament, our relationship
with God, our spiritual life, become “our experience” of Jesus and our
understanding of God.
other fundamental questions for us today on this World Communion Sunday as a people
who are removed by more than 2,000 years from the life of Christ are, What does
God call us to be and to do today, and how will others know that we are
A story I
heard when I worked at the CCA Center many years ago offers perhaps a response
to this last question. In this story, a Christian woman in a rural village in
Thailand was always helping others because of her sense of compassion and
kindness. One day a Buddhist woman in the village wanted to change her faith
and become a Christian.
this woman, she said, pointing to her Christian neighbor. If this is what being
a Christian is about, then I want to be one too.
behavior is one way that others know, or should know, that we are Christians.
however, does God call us to be and to do today, especially in our chaotic
epistle reading today, Paul provides an answer for us. In the first two verses
of Chapter 12, Paul writes to the Romans:
“I appeal to
you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your
bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your
spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the
renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good
and acceptable and perfect.”
telling the Romans, and us, that our being, our actions, our words, are our
spiritual worship to God, like the Christian woman in the rural village in
Thailand. We are told not to conform ourselves to this world but to be
transformed and, if we are transformed, to express to others what is God’s will,
to exhibit what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect.
three to six of our reading from Romans today, Paul also asks us to live our
lives with humility, and he notes that everyone has different skills and how
our different abilities complement each other:
“For by the
grace given to me, I bid every one among you not to think of themselves more
highly than they ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each
according to the measure of faith which God has assigned to them. For as in one
body, we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function,
so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of
another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us
Testament reading in the first chapter of Exodus today also shares insights as
to what God calls us to be and to do. In this story about the oppression of the
people of Israel, the king of Egypt is concerned that the population of the
Israelites is growing rapidly, but the more he oppresses the Israelites, the
more their population increases. Thus, the king orders the Hebrew midwives to
kill all of the male Jewish babies, but they disobey, and their actions
eventually lead to the birth of Moses.
In verses 17
to 19 of this story, we can see how clever the Hebrew women were and how
midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but
let the male children live.
“So the king of Egypt called the midwives, and said to them, ‘Why have you done
this and let the male children live?’
said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for
they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them.’ ”
for me indicates that in times of oppression, in times of war, of human rights
violations, of corruption, etc., we as Christians today are called to be clever
and perhaps even disobedient as well. The challenge for us is to discern when
is the time to cleverly be disobedient. In our present context of Hong Kong in
which we seem to face a dead end in our democratic development and all avenues
for greater political reform seem to encounter numerous roadblocks, is this
such a time? The answer, of course, is a personal one, but the invitation today
is to take the time to reflect and discern and then, if so moved, to act.
I want to
return now to the passage from Romans and to emphasize once again that we are
called not to conform to this world but to be transformed and then, I would
add, to transform others and our society. Thus, the call and the challenge is
to change, but not change for the sake of change. No, the change that we seek
is rooted in reflecting the will of God. It’s naturally not easy to know what
is the will of God, but I believe if our words and actions reaffirm the values
of our Christian faith as taught to us through the life and teachings of Jesus,
such as unconditional love for others, compassion, a reverence for life, peace
grounded in justice, etc., then we are on the right path.
I also want
to draw our attention to another portion of the message in Romans today, that
is, that God has given each of us different abilities and different skills. The
question is, How do we use them?
society, and in many societies around the world, we often use our different
abilities and skills to compete against one another. Competition, consciously
or unconsciously, has become a bedrock of our society. We compete for places in
schools, we compete for jobs, we compete for promotions and higher salaries,
etc. We may also compete sometimes in even less evident ways: who is the most
beautiful? who is the most handsome? who is the best cook? and so on. Competition
in our lives, it seems, is endless, and it appears as if competition is a
natural part of our life cycle. We must also acknowledge that competition is entrenched in
our ego, not in the humility that allows us to grow closer to God and to better
discern God’s presence in our lives. Although competition often pushes us to excel and therefore
can result in improving society, I would like to suggest today, however,
that God calls us to cooperate more and compete less.
illustrate the point I want to make, I’d like to share with you the story of a
Swedish woman, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who lived among the Ladakhi people in
northern India. She arrived in Ladakh in 1975; and over the course of 20 years,
she watched the transformation of the people and their society through
first arrived, she describes the community coming together every night to sing
and dance; but after “development” arrived, the people, she said, only wanted to
watch the “experts”—perhaps Michael Jackson—sing and dance on TV.
recounts another story from her experience:
“In one of my
first years in Ladakh, I was in this incredibly beautiful village. All the
houses were three stories high and painted white. And I was just amazed. So out
of curiosity, I asked a young man from that village to show me the poorest
house. He thought for a bit, and then he said, ‘We don’t have any poor houses.’
The same person I heard eight years later saying to a tourist, ‘Oh, if you
could only help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor!’ ”
stories, I want to highlight two points. First, are we called to be spectators
in life or participants? It’s perhaps easier to be spectators, but is it as
much fun as participating? More importantly, if we choose to remain as
spectators instead of participants in decisions that affect our lives, then others
will decide the outcome of many decisions that impact us, such as those, for
instance, related to housing, health care, education, employment, etc. Part of
our quest in Hong Kong for democracy, I believe, is a desire to be participants
in the decision-making process.
point I’d like to share from these stories about Ladakh is how consumer goods
came to define the worth of a person. People became valued for what they owned,
not for who they were. Tension and conflicts even arose in the community as a
that if we’re going to transform ourselves and to eventually work toward
transforming our world we need to recognize the power and role of competition
in our lives. An unwritten goal in our lives today is to make as much money as
possible and to perhaps get rich if we’re fortunate. Those who successfully
accumulate money receive praise and status within society—people like Lee Ka-shing, Bill Gates, Warren
Buffet and Jack Ma, for example.
if the unwritten aim in society was to distribute more money instead of make
more money? What if those who acquired great wealth were considered social
outcastes instead of economic heroes? The difference in perception is based on
what is considered acceptable by society or even what is the social and
economic objectives of one’s life—the norms of society.
If we want to transform our world today, we need to alter some of the norms
at the foundation of our world. By embracing cooperation and curtailing the
importance of competition, we can use the different skills and abilities with
which we’ve been blessed by God to contribute to the common good, to work
together to address today’s problems, to build relationships and our
communities instead of destroying them. In this process, our being, our actions, our words, become
our spiritual worship to God, and hopefully, people will come to know that we
are Christians, not just on World Communion Sunday, but throughout the year.