Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - The Power of the Gospel

Remember the movie “The Exorcist”? It was one of the most notorious horror movies when I was growing up. I remember going to watch it on my 18th birthday in 1974. It was a bold and defiant move on my part, as a teenager who dared to do something that was considered to be extremely bad luck on a birthday.

Part of the appeal of the movie is its message that the church is powerless against some ancient evil. The two priests involved in the exorcism had to deal with their own demons, their crisis of faith and insecurity. It is the secular world challenging the hegemony of the church – especially the monolithic Roman Catholic Church in the 1970s.

This week, you have heard of another controversy about an atheist ad on the public transit system, saying something similar to: “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. I'll say more about it later.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we also have an episode of exorcism by Jesus. There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” There are a number of deliberate contrasts here. One is between the unclean spirit/person and Jesus the holy one of God. In fact, the demon’s challenge to Jesus (1:24) is a curious phrase in Greek (ti hemin kai soi;) which can translated to be “What do we have in common?” Literally that phrase is: “What to us and to you?” The implication is that there is nothing in common between “us and you”, that is, nothing in common between what is unclean and Jesus. There is a proverb: “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” Jewish laws said essentially the same thing: touching an unclean or defiled person or things made you unclean. The bad infected the good. But Jesus turns this around. This holy one from God can redeem the bad apples, the clean can cleanse the unclean!

Jesus is never worried about becoming unclean or sick by associating with or touching the spiritually or physically or morally unclean. Indeed, he consistently goes out of his way to minister to them. Not surprisingly, his behaviour has offended those who were members of the holiness movement of his day – the Pharisees. Jesus does not particularly care whom he scandalized, while he believes that he is doing God’s work and helps ushering in God’s kingdom. He is more concerned with who gets healed rather than who gets the credit.

The more important contrast we find here is that between Jesus’ teaching and that of the scribe’s. The difference is described in two ways: Jesus teaches with authority, and it is perceived as “a new teaching”. One possible way of explaining the connection is that his authoritative teaching is new in the sense of being fresh and enlightening. The people can tell the difference, for the scribes were merely reciting the opinions of the many rabbis before them. Jesus’ teaching does not rely on those stale traditions.

There is a story of a new rabbi who does not come from a rich tradition of famous rabbinic families. He justifies his authority by saying, “My father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning and teaching.”

What Jesus offers is also something fresh, and so should we in our learning and teaching!

Thirdly, in this story, it was the demon who recognized who Jesus of Nazareth really was. By naming Jesus, as the Holy one of God, the demon attempts to gain control over Jesus - a common theme in many folklore. However, the demon does not succeed. Knowing Jesus’ true identity does not allow the unclean spirit to have control over him.

There is what Biblical scholars called the messianic secret of Mark! Time and time again, Jesus ordered those who were in the know not to tell anyone about who he is. You will notice the way Mark presented the Gospel, he announced right from the beginning the true identity of Jesus… However, those who followed Jesus were very slow to find out who he is. At his baptism, a voice from heaven affirms to Jesus his identity. Like the audience in a drama, we have already been told about the secret. But it was kept from Jesus’ followers until the confession of Peter in Caesarea Philippi in chapter 8, affirming that Jesus is the messiah. It is followed by the Transfiguration in chapter 9, where another voice from heaven re-affirmed his divine identity again. Peter’s confession serves as a dividing line for the two parts of Mark’s Gospel. The first part deals with the question of “Who is Jesus?”, and the second part deals with the question of what kind of a messiah is Jesus. The secret is still kept from them what that messiahship is supposed to mean for Jesus and his followers. At the end of this Gospel, Jesus’ passion predictions of suffering and death on the cross become fulfilled and thus making clear the nature of his messiahship. He is the suffering servant of God, not a conquering Davidic king.

Perhaps it is ironic that today the people outside of the church fear the power of God more than those inside. That is why atheists want to go on the attack. By the way, if I had the money to do a counter ad, I would say, “There is a God; you can still enjoy your life, because God loves you!” Hopefully, people will find it good news! What would you say yourself?

Last week, I talked about hearing the proclamation of the Good News at the right time and in the right places. It begs the question, “What is Good News to you?” For instance, if I were to do a test and ask everyone to write down in about 5 sentences, what is your version or your summary of the Christian Good News? What would you say? Can you articulate it?

The most likely and the most common summary is what theologians called “Substitution atonement theory of salvation”: Human beings are separated and alienated from God by our sinfulness. God, out of love, brings about reconciliation by sending Jesus to us. Humans receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of salvation through the innocent suffering of Jesus, his death, and resurrection on the third day.

However, you have also heard other forms of salvation theories from me: a few weeks ago, I talked about the Original Blessing of the Beloved = we are to be like Jesus, as the beloved sons and daughters of God… we live out our God-given blessed nature by living the way Jesus has called us to live. Many Christians also believe salvation is brought through the “Incarnation” itself, in which God takes on human nature so that humans could partake in the divine nature (2 Peter 1.4).

Part of the black African history has to do with finding the Good News in the story of the Exodus, and the return from exile for the people of Israel. The good news comes from the liberation out of slavery into freedom. The parallels they find in scriptures speak directly and pertinently to their personal experience. Liberation theology is also very attractive to others who found themselves in different forms of oppression, exploitation and enslavement.

Many people of faith also find the good news in terms of healing and exorcism. To some, their experience belongs to the miraculous and supernatural dimension. Healing can be experienced in a spiritual, physical or emotional way. We have heard people talking about healing of memories as a way of dealing with old hurts and psychological injuries. It could be simply feeling forgiven and being offered a second chance in life. Wholeness is another word for salvation; it is often used by non-religious healers and therapists these days.

There are powerful moments of conversion. There are moments of sheer grace, where we can sense our own powerlessness in face of divine mercy and compassion. The hymn “Amazing Grace” captures the essence of this kind of good news experience! Without such encounters or experience, our faith stays as head knowledge, or second hand information. However, when we can say, "I believe it to be true, when I have experienced that power in my own life", then Jesus indeed can make the unclean clean; the sinful holy; the outcast a member of the community again.

In that sense, there are personal dimensions as well as corporate ones, when we talk about the good news of salvation. We have the whole salvation history from the Old Testament to the New to draw from. Yet, we need to personalize the meaning we find in our understanding of the Christian Good News and be able to articulate it to other people. We are called to defend our faith, whenever it is needed. Just as the atheist bus ads would create a healthy debate or discussion, we need to be prepared to tell others why we believe that there is a God, what kind of a God is it, and why that should be Good News to us and to them! Otherwise, we fail to live up to the challenges thrown our direction.

I read somewhere this week a quote from St Francis de Sales: “The test of a preacher is that the congregation goes away saying not “What a lovely sermon” but “I will do something!”

Whether I succeed or fail this week depends on whether you will do something as a result of what you have heard this morning! It’s in your hands! Amen.

Fr Victor+

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Jesus’ Baptism & Ours" - January 11, 2009

Today, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus as the first Sunday following the Feast of Epiphany. We do so in the context of re-examining our own baptism and reflecting on its meaning for ourselves.

First of all, the story begins with John the Baptist as the fore-runner for the coming of the Messiah. He is the common beginning for all four canonical Gospels. In a way, Jesus’ baptism is of greater importance than his birth, according to biblical tradition. The baptism of JB is one of repentance and forgiveness of sins. The obvious question people often ask then is why would Jesus need to be baptized? Does he need to repent? Was he sinful like the rest of us? Why would he need to be cleansed? What does it really signify?

The answer to these questions comes from what happened at Jesus’ baptism. The description from Mark mentions that a voice from heaven said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. The voice addresses Jesus, not the people there. Here, Mark is different from the Gospel of Matthew, where the voice addresses those who were there by saying, “This is my Son…” Regardless to whom it is addressing, the voice speaks to affirm Jesus’ true identity and nature, validating his blessedness.

Every day of our life, we too hear many different kinds of voices. Some are voices of affirmation and love, building us up instead of tearing us down. Some are voices of shame, violence and abuse, diminishing our self worth. People around us sometimes want to beat us down and demean us, so that they can feel better about themselves. The more insecure they are, the more likely they want to strike out and trample us, so that they feel more powerful.

The same voice from heaven that affirms Jesus’ true identity and his blessedness also affirms ours. We who have been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ can also share this same blessed nature and inherit our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. The heart of the Good News is to discover the heart of God and God’s love for us…

In a very powerful scene near the end of the 2006 movie Blood Diamonds, one of the main characters, African fisherman Solomon Vandy, was finally re-united with his son, who was kidnapped by the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone and was brainwashed into a child soldier-killing machine. His son Dia was pointing a gun at him, aiming to shoot, and this is what he said to his son: “Dia, look at me! What are you doing? You are Dia Vandy, of the proud Mende tribe. You are a good boy who loves soccer and school. Your mother loves you so much, she waits by the fire making plantains and red palm oil stew with your sister N’Yanda, and the new baby… I know they made you do bad things, but you are not a bad boy. I am your father… who loves you. And you will come home with me and be my son again!”

Those are the most powerful words I have heard in a movie for a long, long time. The voice of this father, pleads with his son, appealing to his true nature and identity, de-programming him from the brutal and violent brainwashing that he has received. He is appealing to his son’s true self, his higher self, pleading with him to reclaim his son-ship and his true identity! The invitation to come home and be his son again is a magnificent reminder of the story of the Prodigal Son.

How many times in our lives have we longed to hear such an invitation to return home and be the beloved sons and daughters of God, where we truly belong? Instead, we hear critical voices of condemnation and judgment from the world. Those are voices of bad news. We are told that we are worthless sinners, unworthy to be God’s children. We are called “stupid, useless, and hopeless”! Those voices devalue us. They put us down. We have come to believe that we are of no value. We hear words like Linda Ronstadt’s song: “You’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good”! The doctrine of original sin condemns all of us to a fallen and corrupted state, a curse we cannot lift ourselves. No wonder we feel like giving up in despair!

There is another voice of conditional good news. This voice basically says, “I will love you, if you behave in certain ways, do things the way I tell you, and you have to prove that you are worthy of my love. If you achieve certain things in life and acquire certain status, then you will be worthy of my love.” Some parents, not in so many words, teach their children that way. They place an impossible dream, and set an impossible ideal for their children to fulfill. They are, in many ways, being set up for failure, with undue pressure. Some parents like to compare their children to other people’s children and make their own feel so inferior. They think by telling them other people’s children are smarter and better, it would motivate them to do better. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. It often does more damage to self image and self esteem than providing the motivation to improve oneself. Comparisons become put downs. Such an approach is a form of manipulation. Ultimately, it is really a voice of rejection of who we are. Children are manipulated to do what the parents want, same with some spouses. They feel that unless they become better and prove themselves worthy, they won’t be loved and accepted. How sad it is!

I believe in the other voice, the same voice that speaks from heaven to Jesus that proclaims unconditional and unqualified good news of love and acceptance. This is the voice of God telling us, his children, no matter how rebellious and defiant we are, “I love you, regardless of what you have done. Even if you break my heart, I still love you!” It is similar to Solomon Vandy who tells his son Dia, “They may have programmed you and turned you into a killer, but you are not a terrible person at heart. This is not the real “you” – I know you are better than that. You are not a monster. You are my son, that’s who you really are! I am your father… who loves you. And you will come home with me and be my son again!” Have you ever heard God’s voice pleading with you this way before?

This voice is not one of manipulation. True love sets us free to be who we really are. True love makes it possible for us to know to whom we truly belong. It encourages us and empowers us to do better, not out of fear and shame, but out of love and security. It affirms our deepest longing to be loved. We strive to become better, because God believes in us. We are redeemed, that is, we have been given value; not only to the critical world, but we are most of all of value to God! That is what truly matters. We may have been sinful and corrupted by the world, but ultimately we are blessed by God. In the beginning, the voice of God created the universe and created us good! We have the original blessing from God. We can now reclaim this blessedness as God’s beloved sons and daughters. In our baptism, we claim this birth right! The voice that addresses Jesus directly also addresses us directly, too! “You are my son, you are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit who anoints Jesus at his baptism also anoints us in ours.

My friends, this is unqualified good news! When we look into the heart of God, we find no condemnation, only love and forgiveness, affirmation and acceptance. I have been ordained to preach the Good News, and I strongly believe this is at the heart of the Good News as I understand it. There is no other message I believe to be stronger than this.

There are many voices bombarding us every day. Which voice do you listen to? Which voice influences you most? Which one guides you, your actions and decisions?

To bless really means: to speak well of, or to say good things about a person. When we hear the voice of blessing, we are affirmed and validated. We no longer feel the need to earn God’s approval by what we do. It is in our very being, our true identity - who we are and to whom we belong - that we know we are already blessed! God is pleased with us already.

Having heard this voice of blessing and claimed it for himself, Jesus then embarked on his public ministry. He was first tempted in the wilderness for forty days before calling his first disciples; then began his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing. Perhaps the temptation has to do with his acceptance of his identity and blessedness. It was challenged and tested, right after he accepted and affirmed it.

As we identify our baptism with Jesus’, we too are commissioned by our Baptism to be involved as partners in Jesus’ ministry. We may have come to church today with many distracting voices. We may have felt challenged and tested by dissenting voices. However, hopefully through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the proclamation of the Word, we have listened to this one voice of love and acceptance. We will leave this place uplifted, empowered, strengthened and encouraged to serve God and share his blessings with others in our everyday life! That would be good news, indeed! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Fr Victor+


Monday, December 8, 2008

GOD WITH US: Meeting God in the Wilderness - December 7, 2008

Have you ever been out to a desert? I don’t mean Las Vegas. Now, that does not count. Why would anyone go out to the wilderness to see a prophet? John the Baptist is hardly a hippie “taking a walk on the wild side”. Would such a prophet attract people to the wilderness? Yes, apparently so. John followed the example of previous Hebrew prophets, living austerely, challenging sinful rulers, calling for repentance, and promising God's justice. He had a large following before Jesus came on the scene. The Gospel writers all pointed John the Baptist to be the forerunner who prepared the way for the Messiah. He is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. He continues the prophetic tradition to be on the outside, calling people to step out of the ordinary to examine themselves.

According to Isaiah 40, there’s a prophetic voice in the wilderness crying, calling for the preparation of the way of the Lord… as in the arrival of a king. Historically, highways connect people and cultures, as wealth and power flowed through the ancient highways and trade routes. But Isaiah imagines a highway that will connect people to God. How does one meet God there?

John the Baptist was also a desert hermit. Later in the 3rd Century, there was a different form of asceticism in the desert fathers. They took on a monastic tradition similar to other religions elsewhere in the world – to escape from the chaos and persecution of a troubled world, seeking refuge in solitude. These are monks who want to seek self-discipline and holiness away from the world. They found God in the wilderness. Jesus often goes into the wilderness for a retreat. The place apart can also be a meeting place for us to encounter God.

Why the wilderness? It is a barren place, seemingly lifeless. But it is filled with life, with its signs very much hidden. Yet, it is a lonely place. Long while ago, I read an article about a couple who went to Africa to study lions and prevented elephant poaching. They ended up in a place the size of Ireland, all desert land, all by their lonesome. They were the only two human beings with all kinds of wild life surrounding them. Now, that is a very different experience! However, they found it incredibly lonely.

As people go through a transition in life, they often end up in a state similar to that of a wilderness. They too feel very lonely. However, what seems to be a total waste of time on the surface may be more productive than we know. It is a special time for us to do some important inner business.

William Bridges in his book, Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes talks about this process. In every kind of change, transition, or to use a bigger word, transformation, it always involves at least 3 stages: an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning. The story of the Exodus follows the same three stages: the exit from Egypt led by Moses; the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years; and the eventual entrance into the Promised Land. The natural world also provides for us similar examples: the butterfly that goes through the caterpillar stage, the cocoon stage, before a beautiful butterfly emerges anew.

Therefore, being in the wilderness stage or the transitional stage, we do the work of letting go of what we had before, in order to make room for something or someone new. It is a time for us to disengage from the old, before incorporating the new. In general, it is making room for new life, or as in the image we have in today’s Isaiah passage, clearing a pathway through the wilderness. That’s why wilderness is also the place wherein transformation takes place.

In life, we often need some form of retreat or stepping outside of daily life to be alone, to take stock of life and on what has gone on before. Jesus often goes away from the crowd to pray, to be with God, and to re-charge his battery. Sometimes, we need to look back at where we have been, before we can find out where we are heading toward. We are such a busy people, we often go from day to day, from week to week, without really knowing where we have been and where we are going. It is especially true for us now, when we are stressed out in the month of December.

When we go through transition and losses, we become disoriented. The wilderness experience allows us to be re-oriented, to re-examine and re-shape our identity. It is just like the caterpillar hiding in a cocoon, before the new life of a butterfly can be born anew in metamorphosis.

I can remember one such stage in my life when I was in an absolute wilderness state. At the time, my favourite song was “Dust in the Wind” by the group Kansas. “I closed my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone… All we are is dust in the wind.” It was one of the most pessimistic and depressing song ever written. I was in a stage where I was lost, not knowing where to go next. I missed my friends and family in Hong Kong. I found the academic study no longer challenging and exciting. I found my Christian friends talking about things that really did not concern me. It was a dry spell in my spiritual development. I was not satisfied with all the pat answers given. At the time, I did not realize that I was grieving over my father’s death. Even though I was never close to him, his death was still a significant loss. It was only years later that I came to realize how major an impact his death had on me through those desert years.

On one hand, it seems like such a wasteful time for me, drifting along aimlessly. Yet, it was not a total loss. It became fertile ground only after I kept treading it over and over again; until the time was right for me to move on, and ended the wandering.

The wilderness is never a comfortable place to be in. There is a real temptation to rush through it and get out of there. However, it is important to note that we cannot rush through it as quickly as we wish. To everything there is a right time, and the right amount of time for change and for healing. We cannot rush through grief and try to bypass the pain and the sorrow involved. Any such attempt will backfire, and the pain and grief will come back to haunt us in more harmful ways later. The main function or activity of the neutral zone of transition is to surrender!

The person must give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it. We should try to find meanings in the wilderness experience. Don’t fight it! Instead, try to befriend this loneliness. It is there for a purpose. It allows us to discover new life and new meaning. It is there in the mysterious place of the wilderness that we find powerful agents of change and transformation. It is there we meet God, as Moses found out to his amazement! It is there in Sinai where he received God’s commandments. It is in the wilderness where the people of Israel found their distinct identity among other nations and peoples. It is there in the journey through the desert they became the people of God.

The wilderness provides access to an angle of vision on life that one cannot get anywhere else. It is a very unique angle. That is why the prophet called people out into the wilderness to look at life from a completely different perspective. Very often, we get stuck on looking at life from one particular angle; especially one particular way of looking at the present, when things are not going well. Letting go of that specific interpretation of the present may make it easier to conceive of a new future. Paradoxically, how we get out of the wilderness will depend on how well we find our way in, and how well we make use of the resources the wilderness has provided for us.

Do you have your own wilderness experience? How do you meet God there? Is your experience true of the description given?

Advent is also about a wilderness. It is an in-between time, a time of waiting, where the fulfillment of God’s promises is still on the horizon. Nonetheless, God is there, and God is here with us in the wilderness.

The call of Advent is to prepare the way! Therefor, go to your wilderness, find your bearing there, and build a highway for God. By doing so, we may end up finding a way to take us closer to the heart of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Fr Victor+

Monday, December 1, 2008

GOD WITH US: Meeting God at the End - November 30, 2008

We say, “Happy New Year” today, a whole month ahead other people. Instead of celebrating Christmas for 6 to 8 weeks, right after Halloween, we have another season called Advent, which no one else in the world cares about. We still insist that December 25 is Christmas, not the whole month before it. For those who feel the need to be counter-cultural, feel free to be a Christian! Let’s start not from the beginning, but from the very end!

One of the favourite saying of storytellers is, “but I am getting ahead of myself!” “Are we getting ahead of ourselves?” In many areas of life, yes, we are! Our consumer culture does not allow us to delay gratification – it has to be instant, right away: "buy now, pay later!" "Travel and vacation first, no payment for 6 months…" We spend what we have not yet earned! There is a nice word called credit that allows us to do that. We are always getting ahead of ourselves! The Commercial Christmas season is all about shopping, spending and saving. We will diet first before getting fat again, then another round of new diets we will adopt as New Year Resolution. How can we wait? No, we cannot!

With the new church year, we begin with Year B of our 3 year-lectionary, which uses primarily the Gospel of Mark as the designated Gospel. As you know, Mark does not have a birth narrative at the beginning of his story. It poses a bit of a problem for the Advent readings… Instead, the chosen reading for today is a discourse about the end of time from Mark 13. At first sight, it may not seem appropriate to begin at the end. However, Advent has to do with the coming of the Lord, the birth being but one form of the appearance of Christ. After all, we are living in between the first and the second advent of Christ. At the core of Christian faith, we understand that the end time has to do with the coming of the Lord. God is "the One who comes" to strengthen and to heal, to reveal, and to redeem. Therefore, the posture of the people of God is always one of expectation and hope in waiting.

Part of the preparation of Advent has to do with waiting for God to appear in our lives in various places and situations. We arrive at the season of Christmas with the wonderful mystery of the incarnation of “God with us”! We start off examining the promise of God with us at the end of time.

A lot of doomsday prophets proclaim the end is very near, and some actually claim they know exactly when! There have been too many doomsday cults throughout history; they have devoted their energy solely in unfruitful predictions and speculations. They choose to prepare for the end time by stopping to live in the mean time. Some end with very tragic outcomes. Remember 30 years ago in Jonestown, Guyana, where more than 900 members of Peoples’ Temple took poison at the order of their leader Jim Jones? But it is clear in today’s text that even Jesus does not know when the end will come. We should not waste time either!

We have seen a sign board that said, “Prepare to meet Thy God!” We usually think of meeting God only at the end of our lives. Most people don’t think of encountering God in their daily life. Yet, Christians claim that we can have a relationship with God by faith through the person of Jesus Christ. By faith, we can relate to God and encounter God even in our everyday life. God is not a stranger to us, when we can pray to this God, ask for forgiveness, praise and worship God, and give thanks for God’s many blessings.

Given such relationship, should we be afraid of the end? Should we fear the Final Judgment?

It is like have regular performance reviews in your job, with on-going evaluations with your managers or supervisors. There should be no unpleasant surprise at the end of each evaluation period. The best evaluation process should produce no surprises. Whereas, if performance evaluation or judgment only takes place once in a life time; then it will be a very different matter. These days, management cannot fire anyone without giving prior warnings along the way, unless the employee had done something seriously wrong.

Moreover, if a faith relationship already exists; at the end of our life time, when we have to meet God as the Final Judge, will we find a friend or a stranger? Given in last week’s Gospel of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, there is surprised reaction to those people being judged, there may still be surprises for us, too. Would our confidence turn us into self-righteous fools with spiritual arrogance? Would we follow blindly our religious rules and fail to see the needs of those around us? Or, would our preoccupation with good works turn us into unthinking machines dispensing mercy and charity?

Again, our perception of God certainly influences and colours our relationship with God. It may determine whether that relationship is one of fear, or one of loving trust. Would we find God an angry and vengeful God ready to punish us, as in the Isaiah (ch 64) passage? Or, do we relate to God as Abba Father, more of an intimate daddy? Or, do we submit to a God where the relationship is more one-sided, as in “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

On the other hand, apocalyptic endings are really good news for the believers! It is about Hope! Even if the details sound horrifying and horrific! It provides comfort and hope for deliverance, especially to those who were facing persecution and suffering in the early church.

St Paul assures the church in Corinth that the grace of God that strengthen them in the first place will continue to do so as they wait for the revealing of Jesus Christ. He said, “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”(1 Corinthians 1-3-9)

Since we do not know the timing of the end, unlike those who claim that they know, we are reminded that Jesus’ words to the disciples are “Beware! Keep Alert! Keep awake!” These words of action are all in the present tense. A commentator, James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark p. 406) argues: “All the signs that have been given add up to one conclusion: the End cannot be prepared for. That is because the End is ultimately not a ‘then’ but a mysteriously present – ‘now. The sole preparation for the End is watchfulness and faithfulness in the present.” What we do now matters. Rather than anticipating what is to come in the future, we should concentrate on living with watchfulness and being alert in the here and now.

Yes, our existence takes place in between the first and the second advent of Christ. As Christians, we live with the end in sight, but we are not distracted by it. Some would advise us to live every day as if it were the last day of our life. That way, we can treasure each moment and live it to the fullest. As we wait actively, keeping awake for God, we do so with a joyful expectation. We don’t wait idly, full of anxiety and worries. St Paul said in Romans 13:11, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.” The end is something we can look forward to, rather than something we dread. Our outlook is based on God’s promises to us, and that God has always been faithful to us as we have experienced.

Therefore, when we talk about the end, are we getting ahead of ourselves? No, not when we have the end in sight and live according to the hope that God has set before us! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Fr Victor+

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Preview of Coming Attractions - The Reign of Christ, 2008

As a child, when I went to the movies, watching the previews was as much fun as watching the main attraction itself. It gave us highlights of new movies coming soon to a theatre near us. These days, at the beginning of some of the videos or DVDs, we still have the same. Or, as in television serials, we get to have a glimpse of what will happen in the next episode (which keeps us addicted). Some people would like to know ahead of time what will happen next as the long story unfolds. For me, I would rather wait and I do not want to spoil the suspense. I do not want to FF/jump ahead to find out about the ending. It is more intriguing to find out as it gradually and dramatically unfolds.

The apocalyptic vision of the judgment scene in Matthew 25 (31-46) is like a preview of coming attractions. What Jesus told us is more than a little teaser or a trailer; it is closer to a glimpse of the climax. It is a vision of what is to come. However, whether it will happen in the exact details as described here is debatable. Perhaps it will be more like an inter-active ending, where we have input as to how the story will end.

In the story, people are divided into two groups, like sheep and goats separated by a shepherd. There are three points I would like to make about the story:

First, the last judgment is determined by our response to human need. The Judge divides up the people into two groups: one on the right, on the left side. According to Jewish customs, the one on the right side are the blessed ones, and the left represents the opposite. In other words, the sheep are the good guys, and the goats are the bad guys. Notice that it is not good sheep versus bad sheep. They are two different kinds of animals, sheep and goat, one cannot become the other.

How are they divided? It is how they acted in the face of human need. Did they do something about it or did they choose to ignore it and walk away?

The second thing to remember is how everybody is surprised by the judgment. The sheep and the goats are both surprised by the outcome. The evil ones thought they were properly religious, following all the rules of the game and did not do anything wrong. The problem was not that they did not do anything wrong, but that they did not go out of their ways to do the right thing and to do what is good. Like the upright characters in the Good Samaritan story, they walked the other way. They acted out of what they thought to be sound and religious reasons; they did not realize that they had done anything wrong. On the other hand, the good guys did the right thing without thinking that they were being good for goodness’ sake. They were genuine in their action of love and compassion. It came from the goodness of their heart, like a good tree producing good fruit naturally.

Some commentators call this story “the great surprise” rather than the final judgment. Speaking of surprise, there is a story of a man who entered heaven after just finishing his life on earth. As he was being escorted by St Peter into heaven, he was surprised to see some familiar faces along the way. It was a surprise for him to see many persons whom he thought would never have made it to heaven. Those whom he knew have led questionable lives and done wrong things in life. As he questioned St Peter as to why these characters were here, he was told by St Peter, “Son, have you not noticed how quiet they are? I think they are surprised to see you here, too!”

Because of the surprised reactions, which break the normal pattern of a morality story, Jesus was actually combating a moralistic view of life and the judgment of God. It is more than just righteousness by good works, or the simple argument of “the way we live is more important than what we say we believe.”

We may have encountered in life a similar type of surprise. Someone may come up to us and say, “What you did for me certainly help me a lot. I was so encouraged and empowered by you!” or “What you said to me had such a profound impact on my life.” While they are saying this, we are trying to recall what exactly we said or did that was so wonderful. Often we may not realize what good we are doing, and only later to discover that we have served Christ in the least of these needy people. On the other hand, if we assume that we are doing a great job, we might be surprised to hear of what we have failed to do.

Thirdly, we are told that service to another person in need is actually service to Christ. It is in feeding the hungry and the thirsty, welcoming the strangers, clothing the naked; visiting the sick and the imprisoned that we actually minister to Christ himself. In our Baptismal Covenant, we are asked the question: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?”

Indeed, one of the questions raised by this story is who actually represents Christ? Is it the one in need or is the one who comes to help the needy? Traditionally, we tend to think of the ones who minister to the needy as the ambassadors and servants of Christ. Yet, the story turns this upside down and tells us it is the other way around. The ones in need are the ones who truly represent Christ. By serving them, we end up serving Christ.

In serving the least of these God’s children, or not serving them, God will hold us accountable. It is not how we serve the most important people in our life that counts. It is the other way around; it is how we serve the least of them. For the ones who are important, the powerful and the wealthy, they don’t need us. Usually, we think we need them for influence and other gains. But the ones without power and influence, those who seem to be of no significance except that they are needy, are the ones who really need us, and our love and care.

You may find it problematic that the story emphasizes a work righteousness that talks only about human actions. There is no mention of faith, the cross or divine forgiveness that leads to salvation. Are we simply being judged by acts of mercy and kindness rather than right beliefs? I would say no. This story is only one aspect of our understanding of God’s judgment, yet one we cannot ignore. After all, Jesus has told us many parables about the Kingdom of God. There are many, many other facets to his teachings about the kingdom and how should we live our life.

Also, there is another key word we should note in the story. In verse 34, the righteous do not earn the kingdom, but they inherit it. An inheritance is determined by the giver, not by the ones who receive it. It also implies that the relationship between the giver and the receiver is important.

Today, we celebrate the Reign of Christ, or the more traditional title of Christ the King, as the last Sunday of the church year; before starting another new church year next week with a new season of Advent. It is more important for us Christians to learn how to live our life under the reign of Christ than a preoccupation of our eternal destiny.

Central to our Christian belief is that we have a relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. It is that faith relationship which makes a difference in our eternal destiny. Who we are influences our actions. To whom we belong has a direct bearing on our identity and our mission.

The reign of Christ, or his kingship and authority to rule, is more than a kingdom or a particular place like heaven. Therefore, an expression such as “to enter the kingdom of God” does not refer to “going to heaven” but should be understood as “accepting God’s rule in our life” or “welcoming God to rule over us”! It is possible then for us to enter into the ruler-ship of Christ in the here and now. We don’t have to die before going into God’s Kingdom. In fact, that’s what Christian discipleship really means. To follow Christ Jesus is to come under his authority, and let our life be governed by him. We are his stewards, and we are not our own master.

We can inherit this kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the creation, not by merits but by God’s grace. Such acceptance of God’s rule in our lives will naturally lead us to care for the needy. When we act in accordance with God’s rule, we are in the Kingdom.

In giving away a glimpse of the ending to a very long story: our stories, or the stories of our own life; Jesus actually gives us the power to choose the ending! The movie is still being made, and the script has not been completely written. He gives us the power and the right to choose which sides do we belong. We have a choice, when we choose how to act, and how to react to other people in need. We get to determine how we deal with the least important people we come across in our life. However, there is a more fundamental choice we need to make, that is, whether or not we choose to live our lives under the authority and the reign of Christ. That would determine, more than anything else, how we make other choices in life. That would help us answer the question, “Are we being faithful?”

Don’t get me wrong, we do not get to be the Judge; God will still be the Judge in the end. But we get a very big hint from the director of the movie, or we have insider’s information, as to how God will judge us.

Thanks be to God for the Preview of the Coming Attractions. Amen.

Fr. Victor+

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kingdom Investments - November 16, 2008

For the last two months, most people do not want to talk about their investments or their retirement funds. We know it is bad and there is no need to see the detail of the damage. Financial market meltdown, economic tsunami, credit crunch, or whatever words of disasters can we come up with, cannot describe the reality of those severe losses. If we put so much faith in our financial market and those who control it, then are we surprised that every now and then a huge “correction” would take place? It begs the question of our ultimate security and confidence. Who can we really trust with our life savings and livelihood?

The familiar parable of the talents talks about investment of another kind… (Matthew 25: 14-30) Each of the three servants was entrusted with talents according to his ability. It is a story of financial activity. A talent was not the ability to sing or to write, but a large sum of money, approximately the amount a laborer would receive for 15 to 20 years of hard work. The master was a capitalist who wanted his money working for him while he was away, expecting a return on his investment. The first two servants gained a hundred percent return. They were commended as “good and trustworthy” servants, and they were rewarded with greater responsibility.

However, as you know, the third servant failed to invest his talent and gained nothing for his master. He was condemned as "wicked and lazy" for not investing his share. Here, the reward and punishment go beyond business talk in the financial world. “Enter into the joy of your master” and the reference to “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” are Matthew’s language of the final judgment. The parable is a kingdom parable. Like last week’s parable of the ten maidens, Matthew uses them to address the question of how should one live while waiting for Christ’s return. What we do in the mean time matters eternally.

The story underscores the high-risk activity involved. The first two servants doubled the money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original principal. As Christians, what kind of risks are we willing to undertake? Can we do all the Christian faith activities of loving, caring, healing, giving, witnessing, reaching out, trusting and hoping without taking any risk?

The third servant was motivated by the opposite of faith; he was afraid. While fear can sometimes motivate people to certain degree and on different occasions, he was simply immobilized at the core of his responsibility and purpose. Fear of failure, fear of punishment and fear of loss have not only paralyzed this servant, but many other Christians and churches through the centuries. They stop living with a sense of purpose and mission; they bury their talent and hide it under ground. Churches in maintenance mode are like hiding their talents in the ground, hoping no one will come and steal them. They are afraid of the risk involved in growing. They are afraid that changes will upset too many people. They are afraid of a new reality beyond their comfort zone. Fear simply holds them back.

Obviously, Jesus is talking about stewardship here in this parable. By definition, stewardship is the responsibility for taking care of someone else's property or financial affairs. What the stewards have been entrusted does not belong to them. They are asked to look after them for a while. They do not own what is entrusted to them. They have to answer to the master for what they have done with it.

How often do we think of our life, our property, our family, our money and possessions as something entrusted to us? How often do we think that we are entitled to them? The issue is one of ownership and entitlement. What God has given us; we think we are entitled to have them. We have worked hard all our life for them; they become our savings and security. We believe that we alone can decide how we use our wealth, and who should benefit from them. Those who have faced bankruptcy realize how true the saying is “easy come, easy go”! Indeed, life itself is a most precious gift. Ask those who have ill health, those whose children were born with defects. They will tell you never take life and health for granted. We are advised to manage this gift of life very well! As stewards, we are managers of all that has been entrusted to us.

There is the story of a pastor who got up on Stewardship Sunday and announced to his congregation: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have enough money to cover the deficits in our budget. The bad news is that it’s still out there in your bank accounts.”

Since this is a kingdom parable, we should ask ourselves what kinds of investments we are talking about in the Kingdom of God. If there is a “Kingdom Fund”, what would you be investing in? If we are the fund managers, what are we keeping an eye for in our portfolio? What do we value most? Would it be people, time, money, building and property, or the natural environment? Yes, these days, business people are even talking about ethical and responsible investments – as in fair trade, concerns for the environment and ecology. The value in the business of investment is changing; it is more than just numbers, dollar amount, percentage of return and bottom lines. There are other things and consideration that are deemed to be important and of value. Do we keep kingdom values ahead of other values when we manage all our God-given gifts? Or, do we base our decisions on self-serving principles? As a parish, what are we willing to invest in? - Our young people and people outside of the church?

At the end of the parable, the master gave the third servant’s talent to the one with ten talents, and said, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” On the surface, it almost sounds like “the rich will get richer, and the poor gets poorer.” However, Jesus probably puts the emphasis on the fact that gifts exercised will increase, while gifts left unused will waste away. Those who are willing to risk and use their gifts will be given more.

It has been mentioned that when one person shares the light of a candle with another person, the first person’s light isn’t diminished in any way. A candle loses nothing when it shares its light, and there is now twice as much light in the room. Could it be true of sharing love and sharing the gospel? Our ability to love does not diminish by sharing it; and there will be more love in the world. The power of the gospel is not diminished by someone sharing it; in fact, there will be more believers in the world.

On the other hand, there are also examples of things that disappear if they are not used. Unused muscles deteriorate and become useless. Unused money in dormant accounts will disappear as the bank charge monthly fees. Could it also be true of the gospel? If we hoard it for ourselves, if we refuse to share it with others, will it waste away?

To be fair, the master is not a harsh and unforgiving man as the third slave made him out to be. He is actually very generous in giving them talents that they would never have earned in a life time. But perhaps our expectation of God may determine for us how God turns out to be? For those who believe God to be gracious, giving, and forgiving; to them God is like that. For those who believe God to be harsh, demanding, and judgmental; to them God is just that. While certainly God is not created by our own images of God, it is possible that our inadequate beliefs about God may create perception blinders. We may not be able to see the whole picture of God as Jesus has revealed to us. Like the religious leaders of his day, the scribes and the Pharisees, we could fail to have a more accurate perception of God, if we stubbornly hold on to our spiritual blinders.

Similarly, the good quality of the first two slaves consists partly in seeing their master as the giver of good gifts. The evil of the third slave could only see his master as a cruel dictator. The first two slaves seem grateful for what they have been given. The third slave rationalizes his inactivity by blaming the master, out of fear. Such paralyzing fear is totally unproductive, leading to nothing but gifts wasted. Many people have sound beliefs about God, but fail to act on those beliefs. Such beliefs never influence their actions. Their lives are controlled not by God, but by fear, by playing it safe and self interests. They are lazy and poor performers, thinking that they could get away with it. Hiding their talents is a refusal to accept the responsibility given by God.

Therefore, the story invites us to make choices in life that really matters. We are asked to invest wisely. The gift given here is not the gift of salvation. We do not have to work for it. The gifts entrusted to us are for our use, for the good of the kingdom of God, and for the sake of the Gospel. Are we putting them to the best possible use, or are we letting our gifts waste away, hidden and under-utilized? Next week, in the parable of the sheep and the goat, our actions or inaction are further defined by Christ the King.

Yes, the gift of salvation is assured, just as we come with confidence to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. How we respond as we go out into the world is our gifts to God in return… Amen.

Fr Victor+

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembrance 2008

Today, we observe Remembrance Day in the setting of a Christian worship. (Canadian Anglican Church) It is different from observing it at the cenotaph or at the veteran section in a cemetery. Why do we have the remembrance in the context of Christian worship? What is the Christian connection? What Christian lessons can we learn from remembering their past sacrifice?

To remember is a powerful thing. We do it every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, in remembering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As you heard me said it before, the kind of Eucharistic remembrance is more than thinking back to a past event. It is more like re-living that event in the here and now. It becomes a participation of the sacred story. It is a re-enactment. But what are we re-membering and re-enacting today? To re-member means to reconnect, making those whom we remember present to us. They are still members, and part of our living reality.

When we look at the symbol of a red poppy, we know what it represents. Just as familiar is our symbol of the cross, we know what it stands for, too! Both are symbols of sacrifice and death, the death of a relatively young Jesus and the death of young men and women whose lives were cut short by the violence of wars. They could never grow old as we can grow old and live out a full lifespan. We believe that their short lives made it possible for us to live, with freedom and liberty. Now, our lives become a form of vicarious living, so that we may live out and fulfill their hopes and dreams. As we hold up the symbols of the poppy and the cross to do the act of remembering, we also find new life and hope!

Not too many of us know personally of the war dead in the two world wars. We may not have any personal memories of friends and relatives who died fighting in battlefields. However, we do the remembering to thank them for what they have done for us and for our country. Most agree that they made the ultimate (Christ like) sacrifice in laying down their lives for us, so that we may have life. Much in the same way, Christ the Good Shepherd lay down his life for his sheep, so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

I was told by my older brother of old family history before I was born. My father had 9 siblings in his family. He was #8. Near the end of WW2, it was not easy to secure a ticket on a boat to travel between Canton and Hong Kong. Our grandmother was living in Canton at that point. In January 1945, our 9th uncle, dad's youngest brother, was not able to get a ticket to go to see his mother. But 7th aunt had a ticket, so she gave him her ticket as a favor. Unfortunately, the boat hit a water mine and 9th uncle lost his life. The irony remains that 7th aunt lived and 9th uncle died. In war, there are many similar stories of chance and the arbitrariness of life and death… one soldier got hit by a bullet and lived, another was not so lucky. Those who have survived the war and watched other comrades died in front of them often felt very guilty to be alive.

This week, we witnessed a historic moment in American history, where the first non-white person was elected President. Over 40 years ago, not that long ago, American Blacks were not even allowed to vote. We remember Martin Luther King who proclaimed that “I have a dream”, where the color of the skin and the race of the person would not hinder that person from being treated equally and judged fairly. He was assassinated and his life was cut short by hatred and fear, by those who felt threatened by his dream to end systematic racism. He did not live to see that dream come true. But he had the faith to be sure of what he had hoped for, and he was certain of what he had not yet seen. Like Moses, he did not get to lead his people into the Promised Land. Yet, his sacrifice of non-violence has paved the way and made it possible for others to pursue the dream of equality and liberty. Barack Obama is the Joshua figure who has the privilege to fulfill that dream. In his acceptance speech, his refrain of “Yes, we can” captures the fulfillment of that dream. His refrain of “Yes, we can” did not sound like triumphant shouts from the mountain top. It has the poignancy of a somber tone, almost like recognizing the pain and the struggle that had gone on before. It sounds more like quiet confidence than reckless celebration of victory. Perhaps Mr. Obama also felt the weight of the burden that is now placed on his shoulders, as one commentator pointed out. It is one thing to inspire hope, quite another to deliver it. To live up to the world’s huge expectation indeed is a tough act to follow. From his carefully chosen words, he re-membered Martin Luther King by connecting with words of his dream. He made Dr. King member of his team, 40 years after his death. His dream is not only alive, but is being fulfilled by this act of remembering!

In the context of Christian worship, we often say that we believe in the communion of the saints. Last week, we talked about saints in the context of All Saints’ Day. We affirm the belief that those who have died are still part of our lives, our reality and existence. While death separates us physically from those who have died, we are still connected in a spiritual way. In today’s Epistle (1Thessalonians 4:13-18), Paul talks about grief as necessary, but he admonishes us not to grieve without hope. Our grief over death and losses should also be understood in the context of the resurrection of Christ. We share in the hope of rising with Christ. That is a message of encouragement which inspires hope in us!

On the other hand, the world focuses on the scary aspect of Halloween for a week. We were asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Is there a supernatural reality or dimension? Are you frightened by ghosts? Or, are there friendly ghosts? Certainly Hollywood movies always have ghosts in a lot of their stories. Some find it comforting to have their loved ones remain connected to them as ghosts. After all, if we can believe in a spiritual world, then is it too much to believe in the possibility of a supernatural world of ghosts? If so, what would we do with the ghosts of the past wars? How would we respond to keeping their memories alive and their sacrifice meaningful?

Perhaps the first response may be fear. Just as we have been conditioned to be frightened by ghosts and haunted houses, we cannot quite observe remembrance without a sense of fear. We may be afraid of being asked to making the same sacrifice ourselves. We may be afraid of the constant threat to the peace of the world. We may be afraid of another terrorist attack, and another world war.

However, the second response I can think of is respect! We should look up to the men and women who made sacrifices for us and on our behalf. As the number of veterans from the two world wars dwindles, it is all the more important to remember them and honour them with respect. We should also respect our soldiers serving in Afghanistan, whether we agree with the politicians who sent them there or not. When we respect someone, we look up to them. We look up to a higher standard of behavior. Respect for them sets a higher goal for us, it demands us to do better, and allows us to hope!

The third response is one of being grateful. Respect may keep us at a distance, even with admiration. However, to say thank you is more personal. As children, we are always reminded to say “thank you”, whenever someone else has done something for us. How thankful should we be, when someone sacrifices their lives for us? How can we thank them? How grateful do we feel on this Remembrance Day?

The fourth response is one of commitment. Just as we remember, we participate in the story of the other; such participation becomes a call to action as well. Joshua in today’s Old Testament lesson (Joshua 24) led his people in a renewal of the covenant, after the distribution of land among the victorious tribes of Israel in the Promised Land. While Joshua recalled God’s promise to Abraham, he did not have to invoke the name and the memory of Moses. The people remembered. They knew. They did not have to be reminded. God’s mighty acts of deliverance were re-enacted every year in their festival of Passover.

To remember, we are called to act, to continue the unfinished work of those who have gone before us. One of the best ways to pay tribute to someone, as I always conclude my homilies in a funeral, is to follow the good example of that person. She or he may have excelled in many things, in being generous, loving and caring in their lives. Now that they have finished their life journey, someone else will have to take up what they have begun. They can no longer do what they used to do; someone else will have to continue their work for them. A response of grateful respect and commitment will call us to do just that.

In being called to remember our war dead, we are to remain vigilant for peace and for justice. We are entrusted with the responsibility to defend others’ freedom, rights and liberty, making sure that they are free from oppression. We are called to make sacrifices, when it is necessary, so that others’ lives may become better. Like the Good Shepherd, we are given the responsibility to look after his sheep for him. Today, we remember and we give thanks, first and foremost to Jesus the Good Shepherd in this Eucharist, and make a pledge to be his faithful servants in the here and now! Amen.

Fr Victor+