Reflections...

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

“Putting in Your Two Cents”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 11 November 2018, the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were I Kings 17: 8-16, Hebrews 9: 24-28, Mark 12:38-44.


Today’s Gospel story is one often preached on Stewardship Sunday, near the end of the year. The idea is to get the congregation thinking about what they will pledge to the church for the coming year, whether that means money, time or talent. Let me make clear that Pastor Phyllis and Pastor Maggie have not asked me to preach a Stewardship sermon this morning. All they asked for was a sermon. But sermons are based on a Biblical text, so I will need to talk about money.  But rest assured, the message today is about more than money, even if that’s where it starts. So let’s start.

Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem. They are at the part of the Temple where people gave their offerings. Scholars say it may be the area called the Court of Women, not because it was a special place for women, but an area where women were allowed to go. At the Temple there were a dozen or so metal chests for offerings. Each chest had a particular use – one for new shekel dues, another for old shekel dues, another for bird-offerings (I think that means money to buy the birds, not the actual birds themselves!), others to buy wood or frankincense or gold for the Temple, and lastly six freewill offering boxes. Obviously a busy place.

I don’t know if this was also a popular place to go people-watching, but there Jesus was with his disciples. And many devout Jews too. The rich were dropping in lots of silver and gold coins. Even if you couldn’t see exactly how many, you’d know it was a lot by the sound. The offering boxes weren’t like ours today, square-shaped with a slot on the top. The opening was more like a cone, like the bell of a trumpet, so when you put your money in, people could hear the coins hitting the metal. It was pretty clear then the rich people were giving big bucks.

For the Jews, even the disciples, there was nothing bad about this. People giving generously to the House of God. What’s wrong with that? Otherwise, how could the Temple operate?

In one big cathedral church I’ve been in, there was a small note next to the offering box. The note said, “Just so you know, it costs x amount of dollars a day to run this church. Your donation welcome so that we may keep this place of worship open to all.”

For the disciples, then, nothing unusual was going on that day at the Temple treasury. But then Jesus points out someone else, someone they probably would have missed altogether. It’s a poor widow. She goes over to the freewill offering box, puts in her two small coins, and leaves. If Jesus had asked his disciples at that moment, what just happened, they might have said: “A poor woman put in a bit of money.” On the surface, there was nothing remarkable about her or her offering.

Yet, Jesus says a surprising thing in this story sometimes called the story of the Widow’s Mite. Not ‘might’ like strong, but mite, m-i-t-e, meaning very small, tiny, miniscule.  What the widow gave to the Temple was just a few copper pennies in stark contrast to the gold and silver that the rich lavishly poured into the Temple coffers. But which person did Jesus praise?

The widow, right? Why? Because she gave everything she had out of love and devotion to God. She had only two cents left to her name. She could have given one, but, no, she gave both. By Jesus’ calculation, she gave more than all those rich people put together, because the wealthy still had plenty left over in the bank, but she had nothing.

So, what’s the lesson here for us today? I thought it was obvious when I first read the passage. Then I found out there are similar stories like this in rabbinic literature as well as other cultures. So, I asked myself just what is Jesus trying to teach here? Is the lesson:

-          To give away everything we have to God or charity to demonstrate our faith? That doesn’t sound right, does it? Then we become the objects of charity. Jesus never asked the poor to become destitute for his sake.

-          Is the lesson then that the amount of offering we give isn’t as important as the amount we still have left in our pocket? That sounds very legalistic, as if we can measure spirituality by percentages. If anything, Jesus was never a slave to religious laws, especially those we use to puff ourselves up.

No, I think what Jesus is saying here needs to be understood in the context of Mark. This is part of the last public teaching of Jesus in this Gospel.  So, in effect, I believe what he’s saying is: Look at this poor widow and remember her. Because this is exactly what will happen to me in few days’ time.  I am that poor widow – forgotten, abandoned, powerless, living day to day. God is the only one I can depend on, so l will I offer up everything I have, even if it costs me my very life. And as we know, that’s exactly what it cost him.

So, let’s be clear: the story of the Widow’s Mite is first and foremost about Jesus – His sacrifice for God and our salvation. Any sacrifice we make as humans pales in comparison to Calvary, but the closest example Jesus can find that day is a poor widow at the Temple offering box. The poor widow who put to shame all the mighty and powerful around her because their sacrifices cost them nothing. That’s why Jesus said when you remember her, you remember me. And truly wherever the story of Jesus is told, you also hear about the poor widow who foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of our Lord and Savior.

What does it mean then for you and me to remember this poor widow today?  Is there anything that’s relevant to us in the context of 21st century Hong Kong? I think so, if we are willing, if we dare to consider we might be that poor widow too. How? Let me count the ways.

Number One:  Standing before God, we’re all in the same boat as the poor widow, whether we believe it or not.  We don’t like to see ourselves as helpless and poverty-stricken. But, really, what do any of us have to commend ourselves before Almighty God? What do we possess that didn’t come first from the hand of God? Everything - family, friends, education, jobs, status, health, material goods – these are gifts from our Creator, essentials that we depend on that could also disappear in an instant. Haven’t we heard too many stories like that recently? Accidents that wipe out a whole family, disasters that destroy every trace of a village or town, diseases that leave its victims a shell of their former self. Instead of being grateful that these things didn’t happen to us, remember nothing in this life is truly secure, except the grace of God. In reality, we all live and move and have our being day to day only through God’s mercy and goodness. The poor widow knew that keenly and so should we.

The second way we remember this poor widow is to accept her low status in the world as our own. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying being penniless and powerless brings you closer to God. Poverty wasn’t a blessing in Jesus’ time nor our own time. Someone astutely said, “Poverty is like being punished for a crime you didn’t commit.” That was true for the poor widow, but despite all the obstacles, she still embodied many of the traits of a true follower of Jesus Christ. And we need to have them too. A follower who doesn’t seek the honor and glory of this world, a follower for whom ‘humility’ is second nature, a follower who comes to the House of God not to be seen by others, but to see and be seen by God.

A third way we can remember the poor widow is when we give our own offerings. You know there are many humorous sayings about giving to the church, not exactly from the Bible. For example:

-          God loves a cheerful giver, but God will also accept money from a grouch.
-          If it’s more blessed to give than to receive, most people are content to let the other fellow have the greater blessing.
-          If money is the root of all evil, why does the church keep asking for it?

Well, OK, it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil, but you get the idea. We joke about money because it’s uncomfortable to talk about what many consider a private matter between the giver and God. After all, doesn’t it say in the Bible to keep your giving a secret if you want a heavenly reward? Yes, the Bible does say that, but I would be the first to confess my secret isn’t that I give too much to the church, maybe I have the opposite problem. So, what encouragement can I offer you and me that doesn’t leave us feeling worse than when we came in this morning?

This took some time to figure out. But when I look at the poor widow giving her last two cents to God, what I see is a prayer. Her offering is a prayer without words showing God just how much He means to her. Her offering is a prayer not from her mouth but from her heart that says “I love you this much.”

That’s what our offering is too – it’s a form of prayer – wherever and however we give it. Our offering is a way of telling God just how much Jesus Christ means to us, a prayer that whispers to our Heavenly Father “This is how much I love you.” I hope then that your offering and my offering will always truly reflect how thankful we are for every blessing we’ve received from God, including our salvation in Jesus Christ, His church, and Kowloon Union.

Let me close by playing a song that expresses everything I’ve tried to say this morning, only better. It’s called “Take, Lord” by the English composer Margaret Rizza. The words are based on the famous Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. I give him the last word in hopes that one day this too is my honest prayer to God: “You have given all to me, To you, Lord, I return it. All is yours, all is yours, Lord, Do with it what you will.”

-------------------------------------------

“Take, Lord” , music by Margaret Rizza

Take, Lord, receive all my liberty,
Take Lord, receive my memory,
My understanding and my entire will,
All that I have and possess. (2x)

You have given all to me,
To you, Lord, I return it.
All is yours, all is yours, Lord,
Do with it what you will.

Take, Lord, receive all my liberty,
Take Lord, receive my memory,
My understanding and my entire will,
All that I have and possess.

You have given all to me,
To you, Lord, I return it.
Give me only your love and your grace,
That is enough for me.

All is yours: do with it what you will.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, November 11, 2018

 

The Way of Love

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 4 November 2018Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34. 


Good morning, sisters and brothers in Christ! Have you heard at least a story/joke about mothers-in-law (MIL)? Was the story/joke good or positive? Was it bad or negative?

There are many bad or sad stories about MIL. Sometimes, the storyteller even uses “monster-in-law” instead of mother-in-law. One website of ‘mother-in-law stories’ includes a Korean proverb that says, “Toilets are like mothers-in-law: the farther away the better.” Through Google, I tried to find why mother and DIL tend to have such unpleasant relationships, as the stories or jokes portray. The common response I found is that there is often some jealousy and competition between the two women for attention and control (by the mother of her son and by the DIL of her husband).    

But there are also positive stories about mother-daughter in-law relationships. The story of Naomi and Ruth is one great example. As the story goes, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are from Bethlehem in Judah. Due to the drought/famine in their country, they migrated to Moab with their sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Moab was a hilly country, generally fertile with a mild summer season and ample rain in spring. Many Moabites were polytheists (i.e. worshipping many gods) and practiced human sacrifices. It is said that the Moabite King Mesha sacrificed his own son and successor to their main god Chemosh.

As migrants/foreigners in such a land, Elimelech and Naomi must have struggled to raise their sons in their own monotheistic faith and cultural ways. Then Elimelech died (the story has no details of why or how). The two sons took Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, as their wives. After living in Moab for around 10 years, the two sons also died, leaving Naomi, Orpah and Ruth as widows, with no children. Without a father, husband or son, these three women lost their usual access to economic security.

Then Naomi heard the news that the famine was over in her homeland. She decided to return to Judah. Ruth and Orpah decided to follow her. But shortly after starting on their journey, Naomi told them to go back as they would be better off in their homeland. Why did Naomi change her mind? Perhaps Naomi worried about the reception from her people, especially that she would be taking her two Moabite daughters-in-law. She knew fully well that Moab was among the most despised foreign nations. After much crying, Orpah agreed and returned to Moab. But Ruth clung to Naomi and said:       
"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" (vss. 16-17) 
   
Today, such beautiful words are often quoted in wedding ceremonies. But as we can see, the context of these words is not a wedding; not the exchange of vows between the bride and groom. The context is the painful moment when a MIL tells her DIL, “You shouldn’t come with me.” The words are Ruth’s oath/pledge of loyalty to Naomi, declaring her willingness to go with her wherever she would go. The words are a gentle yet firm assurance to Naomi of companionship, support and love. Even though Naomi had lost her husband and her sons, and one daughter-in-law has decided to return to Moab, she still has Ruth, who refuses to abandon her, but instead commits herself to her welfare, come what may. What a way of love, indeed!      

The beauty of this story is that here is Ruth, a Moabite, whose people and religion were different and despised by the Jews of ancient time. Although an outsider, especially to the ancient Jews who were so particular about ethnic and religious purity, Ruth showed her readiness to embrace Naomi’s land, home, people, and God. This reminds me of a quote from a poem by Edwin Markham, an American poet (I will change the pronoun from male singular to plural):
They drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took them in!

Indeed, Ruth’s offer of faithful presence, loving companionship and continuous support to Naomi did eventually become an offering for the whole of Israel, and even for the whole world. As the rest of the book of Ruth attests, she would become part of the genealogy of David, through whom the Messiah, Christ Jesus, would come. 
    
Today’s gospel reading is a concise summary of the commandments or the law. Asked by a scribe which commandment is the first of all, Jesus responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (And) You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This means that while loving God is foremost, one can only express one’s love for God through the love of one’s neighbor. By neighbor is meant someone around or near us. In the story of the Good Samaritan, it is someone in need. In another sense, it is a brother or sister with whom we share our common humanity. In the story of Ruth, it is a DIL or MIL, someone who is not related by blood, who may be from another country/race/ ethnicity, another culture or religion.

Loving the neighbor demonstrates loving God. As I John 4:20 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Interestingly, Jesus has clearly said that loving the neighbor is to be in the same way as loving oneself. This shows that he expects us to love oneself first. Self-love is therefore not bad or wrong as long as it is not the end-goal of one’s life. Otherwise, if it is the end-goal, then it would result in selfishness and greed. Rather, self-love is to be the measure of one’s love of the neighbor, the sister or brother in need; it would be the basis or model for loving the neighbor. So this is the way of love!

If the flourishing of one’s potential is the end-goal of one’s life, then we would love the neighbor by helping them to realize their potential – e.g., through learning new skills, developing their talents, or harnessing their capacity for a bigger task or responsibility. If abundant life is the end-goal of one’s life, then we would love the neighbor by helping them experience or attain that abundant life for themselves – a life that has freedom, security, health and wholeness, peace with justice. This is the way of love! 

Through the story of Ruth and the gospel passage, we have seen that the biblical commandment to love God, the neighbor, and oneself are the most important of the commandments. Jesus showed that one’s love of God can be demonstrated by loving one’s neighbor; and that loving one’s neighbor is to be in the same way as one’s self-love. This is the way of love!


Let us hope that when we are able to keep the love of self, neighbor and God in balance, we would hear Christ Jesus say to us as he did to the scribe, “You are not far from the reign of God.” May it be so.        

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, November 04, 2018

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