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

We are not the only ones (Mark 9: 38-41)

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 30 September 2018 by Dr. Kung Lap Yan. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 19:7–14, Mark 9:38–50.

The phrase, “I am not the only one”, may sound very familiar to many of you. This comes from the lyrics of the song, Imagine, by John Lennon. “I am not the only one” means a lot to people engaged in the Umbrella Movement, for they know that they are never alone. However, on some occasions, we are happier when we are the only ones than when we are not the only ones. This is the concern of the Gospel for today.

What the real issue is

It records a conversation between John and Jesus. John said to Jesus,

Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. (v. 38)

John’s saying was concerned about the authenticity of the man having the authority and power to cast out demons but without following Jesus. It is whether the man was committing a heresy, and/or whether he had abused the name of Jesus. Apparently, John’s concern is well established, but if we pay attention to what had been happened to the disciples some days before this event, we may have different interpretations of John’s saying. In 9:28-29, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why could we not cast demons out?” Jesus said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

I believe that first, John had prayed very hard so that he might have some successful experiences to cast out demons. If this is so, the question John puts to Jesus reflects that he was unsatisfied with the man whose spiritual life in terms of casting out demons was stronger than John himself, but the man was not supposed to be. Second, the man did not follow Jesus, and this implied that he was not chosen or he did not want to bear their cross. More importantly, he was not sent by Jesus. If this is so, his authority and power to cast out demons was an abuse of the name of Jesus. Third, since the man was not following “us” (the disciples, not Jesus), he was not subject to the disciples. In other words, the disciples no longer had the monopoly of Jesus’ teaching. When we take all these concerns into consideration, we can say that the core issue is not simply about how to keep the authenticity of faith, but it is the fear of the loss of status, prestige and position of John among the followers of Jesus. This was especially true in the early church when Jesus was no longer present. Apparently, it is about setting up criterion in order to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy, but it is more about protecting one’s status, prestige and position.

Pride as sin

What is the nature of protecting one’s status, prestige and position? Is it about a matter of dignity, respect or a matter of pride? Pride is to see himself/herself beyond what he/she is, and to refuse admitting his/her limitations and shortcomings. Pride is to focus on himself/herself only, and even greedily to get what is not his/hers. In order not to lose one’s status, prestige and position, he/she not only lies and over-boasts about his/her achievements, but also uses all means to disqualify the achievements of others. In fact, pride is the result of fear, self-pity and lack of confidence. Does it mean that people always having the words of “Thanks, God” or Hallelujah in their mouths are humble? This is not necessary, for there is something called spiritual pride. This is what Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees and scribes. How about the Gay Pride? Are they arrogant? It is important to distinguish between what Gay Pride is talking about - pride as dignity and what we are talking about - pride as sin.

Pride is sin, because first, it does not help one to have an honest and authentic self-understanding, but rather it leads one into self-deception, and consciously and unconsciously live in self-deception. Second, pride is sin, because competition, not fellowship, is its logic of relationship. It does not have the capacity to appreciate and allow people better than him/her. Third, pride is sin, because its nature is a work ethics, and it denies that what we are graciously gifted from day 1.  Pride is a kind of self-love, but it is a misguided self-love. Pride makes one to say “I am the only one,” but in fact, he/she is not.

Do not stop him

In order not to let John fall into the trap of pride, Jesus says to him, “Do not stop him” (vs. 39).  First, Jesus explains that “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.” It is true that some people abuse the name of Jesus for their own sake, but there are many people who are faithful to Jesus Christ. We may not fully agree with their interpretations of the faith, but we should not simply use our own yardstick to measure them. Rather we have to be open, to be listening and even to bless their work. In fact, they have done something that we are not able to do. This is what Kowloon Union Church is doing for our little congregation, One Body in Christ. I have to be honest that most churches in Hong Kong would have hesitation to receive us, but you welcome us and share your resources with us. You have shown us what it means by “We are not the only ones.”

Second, Jesus explains that “whoever is not against us is for us.” We sometimes may victimize ourselves by saying that no one is standing beside us, but Jesus reminds us that we may not receive positive support, but support can be expressed in terms of not against us. If we see in this way, we are not alone as what we think.  After saying this, Jesus makes a positive statement, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (vs. 41). This is what the Kowloon Union Church has been doing for the asylum seekers, overseas domestic workers, and us.

No franchise of faith

“We are not the only ones” is to remind us that we are one of the many to inherit the Christian faith and traditions. We do not have the franchise of the faith. We should not fear losing our status, prestige and position, but we learn to appreciate the diversified expressions of faith through the work of the Holy Spirit. We have experienced the graciousness of God in our church, but “we are not the only ones.” So, we happily share our resources with others and bless them whole-heartedly.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 30, 2018


Ephphatha! Open Up!

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9 September 2018Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 146; Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37.

Greetings of peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ!

Please join me in a short prayer: “Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts bring us closer to you. Amen.”

Today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:24-37) narrates two healing miracles of Jesus that happened in Gentile territory – Tyre and the Decapolis. The first and more familiar story is that of a Syrophoenician woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter who was possessed by an unclean spirit. This is my favorite passage in the Bible because a woman from a different ethnic and religious background dared to defy socio-cultural and religious norms to beg Jesus, a male Jewish teacher, to heal her sick daughter. I can understand why a mother would do such a thing for her child. But I remember it was unthinkable in biblical times for a woman to speak to a man in public. Yet here is a Gentile woman who dares to speak to a Jewish rabbi in public, begging him to cast the demon out of her daughter!

This is one story that has made many readers uncomfortable because Jesus seems to show a lack of compassion for the woman and her daughter. His response to the woman’s plea was: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” His statement reflected the Jewish stereotype/label for Gentiles, the non-Jews, as ‘dogs’; while the Jews claimed the label, ‘children of God’. Some preachers have tried to lighten the label’s connotation by saying that Jesus only meant ‘household pets’ rather than the stray dogs. But the general Jewish regard for Gentiles as “unclean” was common knowledge in biblical times. Driven by her love for her daughter, the Syrophoenician woman responded to Jesus: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Such wit and humility prompted Jesus to respond: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” We don’t know how the healing happened but when she reached home, she found her daughter lying on the bed, completely healed.    

The second story is that of a deaf-mute man, brought by some people to Jesus when he came to the Decapolis (the ten cities). Although the man’s ethnicity is not identified, scholars surmised he must have been a Gentile. We know from our experience that deafness and muteness always go together because one’s ability to speak is connected to one’s ability to hear. We learn a language by listening to and mimicking how people speak, pronounce, and use different tones. Jesus’ healing of the deaf-mute man was similar to exorcism: spitting on the ground was a warning against evil spirits; touching the man’s ears and tongue was a sign of infusing him with God’s power; saying a word, Ephphatha, was a command in Aramaic that meant, “Be opened” or “Be released”. Immediately, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly – a description that he was healed, freed from the demon that was believed to have bound his ears and his tongue.

In biblical time, disease/illness was associated with demon possession or sin; if not one’s sin, of one’s parents. We recall the story of a blind man about whom Jesus’ disciples had asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Perhaps it made sense to people in the early days that whatever could not be explained was attributed to the supernatural. But Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:1-10). 

So what do these stories have to do with us who may not find ourselves in similar situations as the demon-possessed daughter or the deaf-mute man? Or for whom many diseases can now be explained scientifically? Or where some medical breakthroughs have been found? Are these stories too remote from our reality or situation today?

Some of us may wonder why this kind of healing miracle does not seem to happen anymore in our time. My father kept asking why God did not hear his prayers for my mother to be healed from cancer and for him to be restored to good health. I responded to him that illness/sickness and ageing are aspects of our human finitude, and that healing can take different forms, including returning home to God where there is no more pain, struggle, or suffering.

I believe that healing miracles still do happen, if we have just the eye to see them. Early last week, the BBC carried the news that a one-year old toddler, who was born profoundly deaf, started to hear and respond to sounds following a cochlear implant. Serious cases of deafness require more than a hearing aid which simply amplifies sound. Isn’t it a miracle that people with various disabilities are now able to live life in its fullness because of scientific discoveries and technological innovations? Consider the invention of the hearing aid, sign language, and then the cochlear implant; the braille for the blind; the wheel chair, artificial leg and arm, etc. Many people with physical disabilities have overcome their limitations and have done well in the paralympic games. Isn’t it a miracle when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6a).     
I also believe that biblical stories have much deeper meaning than what we can easily see. That is why, through Bible studies and sermons, we keep trying to go beyond a literal reading of scriptures. And when we do so, we can go beyond the healing of the physical body to the mending of the spirit. Apart from the physical disabilities and shortcomings, or diseases that affect parts of our physical bodies, these biblical stories also speak of the deeper spiritual deafness/muteness, disability or disease that people with good ears, good tongues, good sight and good bodies, might actually be suffering from.   

In the first story, Christ Jesus demonstrated for us what being deaf to a cry for help and compassion looked like. As a Jew, he understood his mission was to the Jews, the children of Israel. It was a Gentile woman who confronted and cured Jesus of that deafness. Jesus’ encounter and dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman led to his Ephphatha moment. He opened up to a new realization of the wideness of God’s grace, mercy, compassion and love. It was not gender, not ethnicity, not religion, not social status or any distinction that determined or ensured who was worthy of the kingdom of God. Rather, God makes anyone and everyone worthy of God’s kingdom because that is the very nature of God.

Today, we Christians with sound bodies may also be deaf to cries for help, understanding, and compassion, especially if they come from the so-called “outsiders”, i.e. those who are not among the “insiders” like us. But another word for “insiders” is “inmates,” which is used to refer to those confined in prison or hospital. Being “insiders” can be like a “prison” too, with walls that keep us separate from the outside world. 

Sometimes our deafness is imposed on us by messages that limit God’s love for all people – starting with “Don’t talk to strangers” or “You cannot trust anyone” and on to our preconceived ideas about people who are not like us or not among us. Sometimes our deafness can be willing or willful – e.g. when we refuse to hear new information or prefer to cling to half-truths, fake news, baseless conclusions and old stereotypes. Sometimes we deafen ourselves to unfairness suffered by others; we tune out or cut out others we don’t like or disagree with (something worse than just clicking a thumbsdown on facebook).

Like in the biblical time, we still use various labels to identify ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ In fact, we have more labels to distinguish groups of people today, which create walls rather than bridges. Consider this list of labels: by religion or denomination, ethnicity or race, gender or sexual orientation, social status or education, political or ideological orientation, ability or disability, and what have you. Instead of responding to the command Ephphatha, which means to open up, to be opened or to be released, and to see everyone as a child of God, we may end up being more plugged up by our old beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions that put a limit on God’s love. As Christ Jesus showed in the story, to open up means going out of one’s comfort zone – venturing into “Gentile” or unknown territory, engaging in conversation or dialogue with strangers, being willing to learn from and with them. Unless we do so, we remain “inmates” in our comfort zones, plugged up with our limited knowledge or narrow understanding of God’s love.  

The motto of the Kowloon Union Church, “where all are one,” is a call for us to break down walls that divide, in our life as a congregation and in our individual places of work or study. May we learn from Jesus that overcoming deafness begins with our realization of our own shortcomings or limitations; and that overcoming our deafness leads to helping others overcome their limitations. That is how the good news of transformation in Christ Jesus is shared. As James put it, “What good is it … if you say you have faith but do not have works? … faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14a, 17). 

Dear God, help us overcome our deafness and our muteness, so that we can help others overcome theirs. Ephphatha! May it be so!

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 09, 2018


“Faith of integrity - in remembrance of Bishop Samuel”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2 September 2018 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Opening prayer

Dear God,

You are our Great Teacher. May Your Word enlighten us and the Holy Spirit guide us the way of life in Christ. Amen.

After going through the lectionary readings of this week, the word ‘integrity’ stood out to me.  

Meaning of integrity

Searching from Wikipedia, this free encyclopaedia defined integrity as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is a personal choice to hold one's self to consistent standards.”[1] For me, one man stood out as a good example that fits this definition.

Our dear senior member and friend Bishop Samuel passed away on Thursday at the age of 88 after a stroke on last Sunday and fell unconscious.  As I prepared the sermon today and shared the message about integrity, I remembered him a lot. He had lived a life and faith of integrity as God’s beloved child and faithful servant.

Therefore, my message this morning will talk about the life of Bishop Samuel and how we may learn from him as a man living his faith of integrity in Christ.

Maybe I begin by briefly introducing some background of Bishop Samuel. He was from Pakistan originally. He joined KUC as member in the 1990s when he served as Christian Conference of Asia’s (CCA) General Secretary from 1990-1995 in Hong Kong. He joined our community again when he was back to Hong Kong staying with his son eldest son Ajmal in 2007. At the end of 2015, he and Mrs Samuel moved back to his hometown in Pakistan.

The Letter of James we heard this morning highlighted a vital message: be doers of the word, and not merely hearers. It is important for believers to live out our faith. Knowledge and faith without action are worthless.

Bishop Samuel had set us a great example that he did not only hear the word as believer and preach the word as pastor, he lived out God’s word.

The core of God’s word is love. The greatest commandment of God is to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.

In the moving tribute written by Bishop Samuel’s children, they highly praised their father. Here is what they said about him – “Our dad was our hero: kind, compassionate, idealistic and so full of love. He always had time for each of us in all our life's choices, listening and advising, encouraging and supporting. Imagine this doubled for his grandchildren!”

While I heard many complaints and sad stories about pastors who neglected their own children and families because they were too busy with their church ministry, Bishop Samuel had done very well as a loving and responsible husband and father. He and Mrs Samuel always came and left the church hand in hand. His love and devotion to his wife were impressive.  

His love was not limited to his own family, I cannot agree more with his family that his pastoral heart was offered freely to everyone. He dedicated his life to God by offering his love wherever he went.

I knew Bishop Samuel since 2007 when I started my ministry in KUC. He was such a kind and encouraging person. Whenever he was in church joining the Worship Service and fellowship or during my visit to him in his home, he always asked about my family, my children, as well as the church. Even when he was sick and staying in hospital, he still demonstrated his care and concerns to others. He had always kept us in his prayers. We can see his sincere love of others in all circumstances.

As a Christian priest, and as the first Pakistani Bishop of the Methodist Church, Bishop Samuel was a pioneer in ensuring that the community was encompassing, welcoming and behaved as good neighbours in his predominantly Muslim land. He worked tirelessly for interfaith relations, as well as the unity of the church in Pakistan, being one of the founders of the Church of Pakistan.

His passion to bring peace and unity was not confined to Pakistan. He was keen for inter-faith dialogue in Hong Kong. On behalf of the church, he invited the Iman, a Muslim leader from Tsimshashui Mosque, to speak in an interfaith forum some years ago. When he did that forum, he was already 80 years old.

Another meaning of integrity is “the state of being whole, unified and undivided.”  Christians are called to be ambassadors of Christ to bring peace and unity. Again, Bishop Samuel in all his life not only preached unity and harmony, but lived it too.  

The Letter of James highlighted the law of God is to bring liberation.

The Gospel of Mark reminded us that we should not blindly follow human tradition but to truly follow the commandment of God that would set people free. In criticizing the Pharisees as hypocrites, Jesus reminded his disciples to live a moral life with honesty and consistency. These are qualities from the heart within. 

Carol Cheung, Bishop Samuel’s daughter-in-law, Ajmal’s wife is a Chinese from Hong Kong. I married Carol and Ajmal in this church in 2015. Carol shared in her Facebook about her father-in-law. She said Bishop Samuel encouraged her to do well in her career. He gave her full trust as she excelled. When she was upset, he gave her hugs and comfort.  He was also a very forgiving person as they would reconcile with each other after arguing with one another.  It is not easy indeed for elderly people as they tend to be stubborn. Such a close relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law was admirable. Not only did he treat his daughter-in-law so well, he was also very kind to their domestic helper.

Bishop Samuel was one of the senior pastors in the Ecumenical Council examining and supporting Maggie’s and my ordination. He was the one who preached at my Ordination Service ten years ago. He apparently was happy to see two ordained women ministers serving in KUC. Unlike many old men in his age and from conservative culture, Bishop Samuel did not uphold the male-dominant traditional values and gender stereotypes as golden rule that cannot be broken.  After his death, I learned from Carol that he loved the songs of Abida Paveen. He shared with Carol that Paveen’s songs gave him peace of mind and brought him close to God. Paveen is a Sufi Muslim musician. 

Bishop Samuel had incredibly lived a life with true love and true respect to people regardless of gender, race, class and religion. 

On every first Sunday of the month, we celebrate Holy Communion here at KUC. I was very impressed by Bishop Samuel’s humble manner and his reverence to God in the way he received the elements at the Communion. He always bowed his head and uplifted his hands to receive the bread. He was a man fearing of God and had deep gratitude for the love and sacrifice of Christ. He was very attentive and present at the service. In one Communion service, I shortened the liturgy. His mind was so clear that he noticed it. After the service he came to and gave me critical feedback for something he considered vital was missing.   

Besides, he and Mrs Samuel were always punctual and never been late to the Sunday Worship.

Psalm 15 is the summary of the moral conduct. The Psalmist asked God this question:

God, who can find a home in your tent,

Who can dwell on your holy mountain?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors, in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord.

The life of Bishop Samuel had demonstrated such a quality that the Psalmist has highlighted. We thank God that he is now home resting in his tent and dwelling on his holy mountain.

 “Every precious act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)

Bishop Samuel is perfect gift given to us from above the Father of lights. We will remember him. And the best way to remember is to do what he has done and receive what he has given us.

Let us spend some time to remember him, to give thanks to God for his abundant life, for the grace he had shared with us in God and for his new journey to the eternal home. Let us also pray for Mrs Samuel and their family in this time of loss.

Inkyu will play the song ‘Bless Assurance’ in this time of silence.  This was a favourite song of Bishop Samuel and Mrs Samuel.

Closing prayer

Loving God,

We thank you for the abundant life of our beloved brother and friend John Victor Samuel. 

You had blessed him with an admirable marriage of mutual devotion and service, a beautiful and successful family and a fulfilling vocation that impacted so many people.

It is hard to say goodbye. But knowing that he lived a good life and is now with You resting in eternal home, we can say farewell with peace and joy.

Living God,

In the presence of death, we ask you to comfort Mrs Samuel, his family and those who mourn for the passing of Bishop Samuel. Give them hope that in the love of God there is no separation.

Give us grace to love you, and to trust in your goodness and mercy. Assure us that because Christ lives, we shall live also; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] McGill-Queen's University Press. 2010. p. 12.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, September 02, 2018


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