Reflections...

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

The Challenge of Unity

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 28 January 2018Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.


Today Kowloon Union Church observes the culmination of the 'Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.' This prayer movement was started by two American Episcopalians as the Church Unity Octave in 1908, with a commitment to the reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Later, these two American Episcopalians did become Catholics. Through the 110 year-history of this prayer movement, however, the understandings of unity have evolved – i.e. from a wish for a return to the “one fold” of Christianity, to accepting each other as brother/sister despite the different congregations or denominations that Christians may belong to. Perhaps we can borrow a popular slogan to describe it: "unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation.”

I titled this sermon, “The Challenge of Unity” because the prayer of Christ Jesus, “that they may be one” (John 17:21) is still a challenging responsibility for those who follow him. Two of the lectionary readings today provide some lessons on unity.

The first lesson, from Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with a man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28), is that unity is very much related to wholeness and integrity, or inner unity.  The man with an unclean spirit is an image of a person in need of wholeness. In our time, it is difficult to imagine what being possessed by an “unclean spirit” is like. Our knowledge of spirit possession probably comes from movies on exorcism. But this man with an “unclean spirit” could symbolize anyone of us – when we are very disturbed, full of negative or unhappy thoughts about oneself and others around us, when we do not see any more hope or meaning in life or the world, etc.

Last week, a 19-year old Chinese Medicine student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong committed suicide. He had told his family on Monday that he got unsatisfactory exam results. Then on Tuesday, he fell to his death from a dormitory on campus. I wonder where the pressure to pass exams comes from. Or, is it an inability to deal with failure, to see failure so negatively?

We can easily have an “unclean spirit” within us in this very stressful and highly competitive society. In order for the man with an “unclean spirit” to be whole, he had to recognize that there was someone bigger than himself who could help. Christ Jesus, the Holy One of God, then rebuked, silenced and exorcised the unclean spirit. Jesus also demonstrated what wholeness and integrity mean – he taught with authority, he also acted with authority. Words and actions going together mean wholeness and integrity.

Whenever we think of Christian unity, or plain unity for that matter, we immediately think of how we can be in harmony with other Christians, other denominations or congregations, other communities. But this story talks about the inner unity within a person. The man with an unclean spirit can be anyone of us who may be feeling alienated not only from others, but even from ourselves.

In his book, The Courage to Teach, the renowned educator and author, Parker Palmer, describes two of his friends. Alan taught from a united (undivided) self, while Eric taught from a divided self. Alan, the teacher with a united self, honored his humble beginnings and wove his experiences (good and bad; happy and sad) into his teaching. By teaching who he was as he taught his subjects/courses, he became more human (more “real”) to his students and colleagues. Eric, the teacher with a divided self, was engaged in a civil war with his past and with his experiences (especially those he considered bad). Eric projected that inner warfare in his teaching and relationship with his students and colleagues. Palmer says: “The divided self will always distance itself from others, and may even try to destroy them, to defend its fragile identity.”

There are many signs of the divided self: inability to cope with rejection or defeat; anger and bitterness because of one’s poor background or lack of opportunity; you can add to the list. Perhaps, the great movie, “The Greatest Showman,” especially the song, “Never Enough,” captures what it is like to long for more than what one really needs. Many of you must have heard of Jack Ma, one of the world’s famous and richest entrepreneurs. In several interviews, he spoke about failing a college entrance exam three times. He said he was rejected by Harvard University 10 times. Giving up college, he said he tried applying for jobs. He was rejected in 30 different job applications, including with the police force and the KFC! I think Jack Ma kept his wholeness and integrity as a person by embracing rejection as an invitation to work harder, to find other ways, and to be creative.

Here at Kowloon Union Church, we have people who come from all walks of life. Each of us has our own stories of brokenness; each of us longs for wholeness and integrity. Perhaps, the exorcism/help we need would be safe spaces for self-reflection and for unburdening to each other in order to recover and reclaim our wholeness and integrity. Only when we are whole individually can we work better for the wholeness of the wider community.

The second lesson (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) is that unity within the community is related to tempering our freedom with love. The Corinthian Christians were asking Paul to respond to a practical issue: whether it was okay to eat food that had been offered to the pagan idols. This question may sound odd to us in our time and context today. But it was a real issue for the Corinthian Christians. Paul’s reply was very straightforward: for those who believe in the one God, no idol really exists. Moreover, it is not food that brings people close to God. However, it would be better not to become a stumbling block to the new/young Christians who might be offended by one’s freedom of eating food offered to pagan idols.

Instead of dwelling on the eating of food offered to idols, I have heard some preachers apply the text to alcohol drinking or playing poker. In Asia, it could be playing majong or other forms of gambling. For people whose conversion to Christianity means a clean cut from these so-called vices, to see someone who has been a Christian freely exercise their freedom to do these things even in moderation, could be offensive, a stumbling block in their growth in faith. 

I remember one interfaith program of the Christian Conference of Asia. We had Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, including monks, and Christians as participants. In the spirit of interfaith cooperation, we took turns in leading the worship/prayer each day. On the day that the Buddhists led, they had a ritual where the monk blessed pieces of string which we were to tie around each other’s wrist. Two of our Christian participants from a predominantly Buddhist country refused to take part in that ritual for they believed that doing so would be compromising their faith, and they could be reprimanded by their elders. We respected their decision but we also assured them that sharing with one another was part of our effort at interfaith relation.

During one gathering of the Congress of Asian Theologians which I organized, I had one guest speaker from Indonesia, a Muslim theologian. I thought I was being helpful to him during meal time, when I warned him of dishes that had pork. After the third warning, he gently said to me: “Sister Hope, we are excused if we did not know what was in it.”             

I think it is not simply taking the food, alcohol, or engaging in gambling that may cause division in the community. Rather it is the theological understanding behind those actions. In our church community, it could be our varied theological views, different ideological orientations, or our long-held traditions. Some of us have had some opportunities for further training that we may become impatient with those whose beliefs or ideas are so different from ours. Some of us may be privileged to have new experiences, new realizations about life and relationships and we may feel rejected if those are not honored or accepted.

Paul’s advice remains relevant: knowledge/freedom puffs up, but love builds up. The exercise of our freedom in Christ must be tempered with love. Freedom (or knowledge) puffs up. It puffs up the ego of the one who claims to have more knowledge and understanding about God or anything. It puffs up the ego so that one would think they know better than others. But love builds up (vs. 1) – it builds up the community in a way that it understands where each one is coming from, and it would not insist on its own way.

Kowloon Union Church is known to have progressive ecumenical ideas, and to have commitments for the marginalized in society. It is also welcoming and affirming of all kinds of people. For this we have to continue to reflect on how we can let love build us up, rather than letting our ideas and commitments puff us up. We would hope that the exercise of our knowledge and commitment will be tempered with love. We would also hope that our words and actions will show the wholeness and integrity that Christ Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry. May it be so.

Dear God, help each one of us, as we deal with the challenge of our inner, individual unity, and our quest for wholeness and integrity. As we try to work on our wider unity as a community, inspire us to let love build us up. Amen.      

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, January 28, 2018

 

“Calling”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 21 January 2018, the Third Sunday after Epiphany, by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Jonah 3:1-5,10;  1 Cor 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20


Opening prayer
Creator God, may your Word reveal to us your wisdom. May Jesus Christ the living Word strengthen our faith and transform us to be more like him.  Amen.

After Jesus overcame Satan’s temptation in the wilderness and after John was arrested, he started his public ministry to proclaim the good news of God, calling people to repent and believe in the good news. Meanwhile, he went to call for disciples to follow him and join his ministry.

Today, I would preach about ‘calling’ and reflect on its meaning.

God’s call on our lives should not be taken as one more thing to do. God’s call is a gift. It is a gift for us to experience God’s grace.

The Calling of Christ invited and challenged us to have full trust in God.
Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John. They responded to his invitation positively and immediately. From the gospel account of Mark, it did not mention at all if these four followers asked any question. The highlight of the account was they left everything and followed Jesus immediately. Simon and Andrew left the nets. As fishermen, net is the means of earning, the means of supporting their life. For James and John, they left their father and the hired workers. It indicated that James and John’s family was a bit wealthier comparing to Simon and Andrew. But all of them were willing to leave their comfort zone, a place to work and live, and even family that were familiar to them.

Jesus as their master was so new to them. Even these disciples did not fully understand what it meant to follow Jesus. They were willing to engage in an uncertain future. They had demonstrated full trust in Jesus.

The Calling of Christ invited and challenged us to have faith in God. When the source of security is all gone, it is a time to test our full trust in God. To leave earthly possession and follow Jesus is a result of faith by knowing that everything is from God and in God’s hand. The eternal destiny is with this everlasting God.

As human beings we will plan and calculate before we make any decision especially the major ones. I think it is very normal and consider it the right thing to do as a responsible adult.

When I was considering to quit my job in the University and take up theology study sixteen years ago, I had gone through a mental process by analyzing its pros and cons. I felt a bit insecure for losing a decent job and income. When I was struggling, I remembered the words in the song of Seek Ye First. Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness, all these things will be added unto you. God strengthened my faith in Him through his words. God’s adequate provision to me and our whole family has revealed God’s faithfulness and promise of abundant life to His beloved children and followers.

The calling of Christ invited and challenged us to let go of our earthly worries and even the sense of insecurity but to entrust in God’s grace. When we have full trust in God, we are more willing and easier to take life risks.

The Calling of God invited and challenged us to surrender our ego
The Book of Jonah told us a story about Jonah who was called by God to proclaim his message to the people of Nineveh whom he hated because of their evilness. Jonah was not ready to listen to God and so was reluctant to do His will. But God insisted. When God called Jonah for the second time, Jonah did what he was asked to proclaim God’s message of judgement to Nineveh. We thus learned from Jonah about the surrender of his ego to take God’s call and carry out His mission.

God is the one who called
From the story of Jonah, we see clearly also calling is ultimately from God.  
Calling is absolutely God’s sovereign power to extend his invitation to anyone he has chosen. No matter who we are, good or bad, capable or incapable as defined by ourselves and others, it is God our creator, the Ultimate to decide.  God’s calling is even beyond human readiness and weaknesses.

The four fishermen whom Jesus called were ordinary people in their society. They were not great people with high social status and respect. They were not perfect. In many ways they did not fully understand Jesus their master. Even Simon who was later given the name Peter, denied Jesus when he was threatened by the religious authority. Jesus called his disciples to be his ministry partners out of love and trust to them. Jesus revealed that God is a God of community and participation. He is pleased to have His children be with Him and join His mission.  Calling is an invitation from God to his beloved children for partnership in His creation and salvation.

Sisters and brothers, don’t be afraid and worry when Jesus came to you and invited you to follow him. God will give you power and strength to do His work and His will. God will also let you experience His grace and know His will at the end.
God’s Calling is a gift. Another word for gift is present. I used ‘Calling’ as my sermon title. ‘Calling – calling, includes three letters – i-n-g, it conveys a meaning of on-going and ever present. God’s call is to live every moment with the presence of God.

When we are not fully present we are not aware of God. We are too easily distracted in our daily life. We are living in a world moving so fast and we are always overwhelmed by the overflow of information. Messages and information from emails, whatsapp, facebook, Instagram and etc have kept us so busy and distracted.
Living in a troubled world, many of us have been constantly disturbed. Our mind and hearts have been carried away by worries, life difficulties and human tragedies.
Distraction is a barrier to listen clearly of our calling. Busyness is an enemy for us to be attentive to God’s voice. We cannot live fully in the present with God if we are in regret of the past and worry about future.
In the Epistle of 1 Cor 7:29-31, the Apostle of the early church encouraged the disciples to overcome worldly worries, possession, material life and expectation from society and live a life free from the bondage of human relationships. The wisdom from the Apostle is that the present form of the world is passing away. So God’s people and Christ’s disciples should look up to things that have eternal values – that is eternal love and life, which can only be found in God.

While we accept human reality of internal and external conflicts, struggles and contradictions, Jesus’ followers need to set our sight in God and free ourselves from the limitation of human world. The resurrected power of Christ is our source of strength and insight.

To Conclude
God’s calling is a gift. This gift allows us to restore our trust in God, to surrender our ego and to let go of earthly worry so that we can live an eternal life of love and hope.

God’s call ultimately is to call us to live every moment with the presence of God
Calling is all about being, being with God and aware of our real being as God’s children.
In God and with God, we know that we are wonderfully and uniquely created with many gifts – gifts that bring us and others joy and abundant life. Calling is thus to connect with God and with others so as we try every effort to make this world a better place to live.
To end my sermon, I would like to share Henry Nouwen’s wisdom on God’s calling. Here I quote from his book Bread for the Journey:
 “... We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people.   But each of us has our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and give us the strength to love out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illness of our time.”
Let us spend two minutes to pray with stillness and aware of God’s presence within and all around.

Closing prayer:

Living God, we thank you for the gift of calling. You call us to be your beloved children, to be connected with you in eternal love and life through Christ. May the Holy Spirit remind us of your presence in every moment, strengthen us to follow Jesus and be his faithful partners to engage our lives in Your calling to bring your love and unity to the world. With a grateful and joyful heart we pray, amen. 

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, January 21, 2018

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