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The Abundant Church

John 10:10-18

February 13, 2016

Message by Rev. Dr. Donald Ng given at the Nagaland Baptist Church Council’s 79th Annual Council Meetings, NPBCA Mission Centre, Chumukedima in Nagaland, India.

Greetings from the American Baptist Churches, USA, your historic and faithful Baptist partners over the course of almost 200 years. Last year, the Rev. Judy Fackenthal spoke at this convention and today; she is our new ABC president for the next biennium of 2016-17. We are deeply appreciative of your warm hospitality and gracious invitations to share at this year’s annual gathering.

Some of you may know that I visited NE India for the first time last April just about 10 months ago. I loved Tura in the Garo Hills and Jorhat in Assam and visiting the CBCNEI campus in Guawahati. During that visit, I visited 4 of the seminaries and 3 of the Baptist hospitals and was moved beyond words on how God is working among your efforts. I left last year committed to tell others in the United States of your Baptist witness. This time, my immediate family, Joy, Greg, and Lauren along with a good friend, Wendy Quan from our Chinese Baptist church in San Francisco came to see for themselves God’s wondrous work.

One of the trips that I was unable to complete last April was to visit Kohima where the proposed Northeast Christian University, NECU will be established. We’ll visit Kohima this coming week. Having an opportunity to attend college is having abundance in life.

This weekend, we are exploring the meaning of “abundant life.” Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” But I don’t think Jesus was talking about having an “abundant life” as we think about abundance today.

India is the third largest economies in the world. It has the world’s second largest population with many highly educated people. Indian tech experts are integral to US companies. Indian food is becoming as common as Chinese food. Bollywood films compete with Hollywood. And whenever I may be calling customer service, I often would ask where my technician is located and it’s common that they are in India! Like every nation including the US, we have people who are at the lowest economic station of life. India is no exception. But whether we are wealthy or not welled-off, rich or poor, up or down, educated or illiterate, we all want abundance. We want more than what we have now. We seek and dream about the “abundant life.” In America, one image of abundance is the “All-you-can-eat” Indian food buffet!

Economists project that by 2020, it’s estimated that the richest 1% of the world’s population will control 54% of the world’s wealth or put in another way, the world’s riches people, all 85 of them, own the same amount of money as 3 billion people in the world or the combined economies of 48 countries! I don’t know about you, but I know that I’m not one of those 85 people!

A few weeks ago at the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, we learned that only 62 people in the world have the same wealth as half of the people on the planet as in 3.6 billion people! The last time I looked at my bank account, I know I’m not one of these 62 people either!

Family Story

The reason why I was born in Boston, Massachusetts is because my family was seeking for abundance. In 1910, my grandfather left South China on a merchant ship like so many thousands of Chinese men in those days and during the late 1800s is to find gold and wealth in America. The Chinese word for California is “Gold Mountain” and for America is “Beautiful Country” meaning rich country. The Chinese talked about the streets in California were covered with gold.

My grandfather worked as a simple shopkeeper in San Francisco Chinatown and sent the money he earned back to his village in China. When my father and uncle were only in their late teens, my grandfather accompanied them to America to continue a hand-washed laundry in Boston. My father and uncle were to do the same—make as much money as possible and send the money back to China. There were no plans to stay in the United States when we had a house and farmland in China. Besides, my father was already married to my mother and they had my oldest brother in a South China village near Guangzhou.

Getting rich was their goal. Living more comfortably was their dreams. Always having enough rice even at times of drought and famine meant these Chinese forefathers were willing to sacrifice safety and home to be away from home so that after years of lonely sojourning in a foreign land, they would finally have abundance. In other words, my father was more like one of the hired hands in John 10 who was concerned only with monetary gains, expends the minimum amount of work needed to care for the sheep, and will not risk life or limb for the sake of the sheep.

We still see this today. Multinational corporations relocate engineers and their families to America and other faraway places so that the bottom line for investors would be satisfied. And in turn, those who are willing to sacrifice what they have may in fact return home with abundance.

My father was in the US during the outbreak of World War II. Although he was not yet a citizen, he was drafted to serve in the US Army, became a corporal and was deployed to Germany. Every able body was needed to win the war. I never had the chance to ask him how he felt about serving a country that he was not yet a citizen of but in such times, these unskilled laborers would have nothing better to do.

I think that if my father had his way, he would not be at church. But after World War II was over, the Baptist church in Boston welcomed returning US veterans including my father to come to Sunday school to learn English by reading the Bible. He knew that returning to China was no longer possible with the Communist takeover. If he were to become rich and wealthy, he would have to make it in America. And with the little English he can master by going to Sunday school, he would be better off. What is abundance for someone who is unskilled, with limited English, and with an orientation of a foreigner in a strange land to do?

With the help of the First Baptist Church in Boston, my father was able to sponsor my mother and older brother to America in 1947.  And I was born in Boston in 1949. Growing up in Boston with first generation parents from China, I was more poor than I was rich. Since my father worked in the laundry and my mother eventually became a seamstress working in a sewing factory, we always had enough clothes to wear. But not necessarily shoes on our feet.

Shoes were expensive in those days and my brothers and I were only allowed to buy 2 pairs a year—Easter and Christmas. I can still remember having holes on the bottom of my shoes during winter. I would wrap a plastic bag over my socks and put a cardboard sole in my shoe when I walked in the snow. I hated it when it was snowing and raining in Boston. Easter shoes always came after a cold and snowy Boston winter!

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As Chinese Americans, we always had enough rice to eat. Soon my father worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and we survived eating chicken butts and wings before chicken wings became popular as they are today in America.

I started to attend Sunday school as a child and remembered one of the Bible passages our third grade teacher Mrs. Beatrice Wyatt made us memorize. It was Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Growing up in the city of Boston, I only saw sheep in the Bible pictures. And we read about shepherds who watched their flocks by night on that Christmas night. But in Psalm 23, the shepherd provides all that any sheep or person would want: green pastures, still waters, clear and right paths. And when life becomes dark and dangerous, the shepherd leads me with his staff to comfort me and I am not afraid. In front of any enemies that I may have, and dangers that are in front of me, the shepherd prepares me for that by anointing me with oil with so much reassurance that my cup overflows. When I followed the shepherd, goodness and mercy come into my life and I get to come into the house of the Lord to dwell for the rest of my life.

When I came to fully understand Psalm 23, there was nothing else that I really wanted. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The abundant life is with the Lord even when I had holes in my shoes. Don’t get me wrong—at that time, I really wanted new shoes! I really needed new shoes! But in the end, over many years of deepening faith, understanding the Scriptures, becoming a disciple of Jesus, even with holey shoes, the Lord is my shepherd and I have no more wants.

Abundant Nagaland

It’s my understanding that of all the NE Indian states, Nagaland is the most educated and economically able. What is abundant life in Nagaland?

In preparation for our trip to Nagaland, I was reading Mar Imsong’s book, God-Land-People, An Ethnic Naga Identity where Dr. Imsong states that for what defines the Naga people is land. Land is where the Nagas trace their origin and land is the basis on which all the things in the world are united. Would the abundant life for the Nagas be the harmonious relationship of connecting God-Land-People together?

I read that there’s a common folktale among almost all of the ethnic Naga groups, including the Aos, Konyaks, Phom, Lotha, Rengma, Santam, etc. Each ethnic group has a little variation here and there, but the central theme of the story of the Spirit, the Tiger and the Man is that we are all related to the Earth. To have an abundant life as a Naga is to have a relationship with the land that offers food for nourishment, a place for shelter and even more importantly, a community to which to belong. For the Nagas, land is green pastures and still waters.

The Abundant Church

In the gospels, we read that Jesus provides the critical elements of the meaning of abundant life: water (4:14) for thirst and baptism; bread (6:35) for food and life; light (9:5) to find our way in a darkened world. In our Scriptures for this weekend drawing from John 10, Jesus provides the critical element of shelter in the form of the sheepfold.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. There are good, green grass and still waters, but it’s the presence of the shepherd that makes the field safe and nourishing. The role of the shepherd is to lead the sheep, providing protection, freedom from fear, and food to survive. Unlike those who steal, kill, and destroy, this trustworthy shepherd offers abundant life.

For the church that has the element of abundance, the church today in Nagaland and perhaps in the world reflects three qualities of the sheepfold.

First, the abundant church provides shelter. Just like my home church in Boston provided a new home for many returning American soldiers after World War II, the Chinese Sunday school was a refuge in a strange land. One didn’t have to profess the name of Jesus before entering into the warmth of the church. My father only learned about Jesus by first learning English in reading the Bible. At my church in San Francisco, we offer English and US citizenship classes to new immigrants and newcomers before sharing the Good News gospel with them. In fact, every time, we open our church doors to the world, we invite all people to have shelter.

We all know about the miracle in the feeding of the five thousand with just 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. There were no shortages and plenty of food to go around. There was an abundance of food. In the church, abundance is a given. When a homeless person comes into our church in San Francisco and is looking for something to eat, I would walk them upstairs to our church kitchen and behold, there would always be some kind of leftovers to give. One time, I gave away a teacher’s lunch and when she was looking for it the next day, I told her that it went for a good cause. She wasn’t necessarily happy. In an abundant church, there’s shelter for the homeless and the hungry.

In front of our church doors in San Francisco, we would often find a homeless person sleeping in the morning. Our policy is to let that be because an abundant church provides shelter even for those who are down and out. It’s the least that we can do.

Second, the abundant church practices community. The good shepherd does not merely care for the sheep, but also gathers the flock. Those who see, hear, and believe in Jesus belong to the community; thus, the door is wide open to the outcasts of the day—sinners, lepers, women, Samaritans, tax collectors, and more. Jesus is concerned for the individual welfare of each sheep (knows each by name) and for building up the community (gathers into the fold)! Who in your communities represent the outcasts of the day? I suspect that you would have no problems welcoming other Nagas into your community, but how about the other peoples in Northeast India or from other parts of India or other people around the world? Will you welcome them into your community?

In community, we’ll have intimacy and security. We all long and hunger to know and to be known—we create these “virtual” communities on the Internet and in chat rooms. On Facebook, we dole out parts of ourselves in stingy bits and pieces, avoiding being vulnerable with each other, holding back our feelings and thoughts, are afraid to confront each other, judge each other without mercy, hold grudges, set impossibly high standards for ourselves and each other. Our good intentions are misunderstood and rejected and we avoid commitments because we don’t want to risk being exploited. Forming authentic and holistic community is hard work. We rather be on Facebook then to be face-to-face with each other. How can we form community that is real and life giving?

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What might an abundant church that is strong in community in Nagaland look like?

And thirdly, the abundant church offers protection from dangers. Our Scriptures speak about our fears are real and that there’s danger in the world. When we are led by the hired hand and a wolf is coming, the hired hand runs away and leaves the sheep in danger. The wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them. But when we follow the Good Shepherd, he is the one who knows us and cares for us, is willing to die for us and is our constant companion—the Good Shepherd.

What kinds of dangers threaten your community? Against what does your community struggle? In what ways does a life in faith address those dangers? We have already spoken about the danger of today’s material wealth knowing that the abundant life is not earthly riches but following the Lord. But how much we all wish that we could just have a little more abundance!

Another danger that we have in the world today is our emptiness and anxiety of feeling that we belong. How does the church provide a place where people feel they belong? If it weren’t for First Baptist in Boston who helped my father feel that he belonged in the US, I wouldn’t be a Baptist minister today!

A contemporary theological understanding of abundant life is a purposeful vocation that serves the common good, participation in a growing and transforming community, delight in sustaining relationships, and a sense of security in Christ no matter what comes. I think this is the main reason why our group from the US are here with you this weekend—we too are seeking more meaning and purpose in our life’s existence and perhaps we might find that by visiting and being with you in Northeast India. We want our lives to be worthy of following Jesus. Are you living your life with the purpose of serving God and loving your neighbors?

What dangers do you face today that may lead you away from the Good Shepherd? The abundant church as the sheepfold stands together to confront these threats on their community life together. They don’t scatter but hold their hands firmly to face the world in the name of Christ no matter what comes. When we don’t know the story of Jesus, the church becomes like a ship that is unmoored and rudderless.

One of the rituals that many Baptist churches do in America is to pass the peace. When the apostolic church did this, it was revolutionary because Jews and Gentiles who now have become brothers and sisters in Christ are now touching one another. Jews don’t touch a Samaritan. When we pass the peace today, we are demonstrating that our community joined in our holding hands will protect us from all danger. Let us pass the peace with one another now. It is revolutionary!

Jesus, the Good Shepherd

Jesus is called in the Greek, a kalos shepherd. This word, kalos, most often translated as “good,” is frequently understood by us as the opposite of “bad.” While not inaccurate, kalos means “good” more in the sense of model. Jesus is the Model Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, knows the cost of protection and his willingness to pay it, in accord with God’s goal of ultimate protection of the sheep.

The “Abundant Church” follows Jesus who seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, who are often the forgotten in our society. Lowly shepherd, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the news of the birth of the Savior. The fact that they were Gentiles points to the words Jesus speaks about “other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (v. 16). The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does, rather than on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the shepherd is rather than who we are.

The “Abundant Church” believes that Christ is the Word of God, who did not want the world to perish. The world surely will perish if we continue to follow messianic pretenders of self-definition, identities based on separation, and earthly materialism. The voice of Christ calls out to us as well as to all peoples in the world to follow him.

The “Abundant Church” knows the Good Shepherd, the Model Shepherd who wants us to be connected as the Body of Christ in a world that values individualism and secularism. The Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearnings for community in the midst of our loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness and gives us the Nagaland Baptist Church Council.

The “Abundant Church” offers shelter to all people even those who have yet to know the name of Jesus like my father and in God’s time and the hospitality of Baptist friends model for him and eventually to me that Christ is Lord.

In the end, the “Abundant Church” raises up, calls out, sends out disciples of Jesus Christ to be like Christ as much as they possibly can in this world of untold materialism and unspoken poverty to proclaim Jesus as the Good News even unto death.

As a Baptist from America and having the ability to travel to be with you these days is a privilege and an opportunity that most people around the world would be unable to do. I confess that I have material abundance and when I am really honest with myself, I still want those new shoes. But the abundant life that Jesus offers us is worth more than any gold on the streets of California, any high tech jobs that one can have in Mumbai, any new pair of shoes that I might buy.

Jesus came that we may have life, a new life in Him and to have it abundantly!

Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the model who teaches us to be the abundant church in a world that is hungering for God.

Let us pray.

Gracious and loving God, we are thankful for your love that we have seen, received, and looked up to in the life, death and everlasting life we know in our Lord, Jesus Christ. When we are lost and endangered, we pray that we would seek after Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Bless our churches and the Nagaland Baptist Council that we have the faithful and courageous witness to be your peace and reconciliation in the world. Help us to put aside our own petty needs and to watch out for our enemies as we do with our loved ones. Teach us about life with abundance in the Lord so that we may have it abundantly for your sake. In the name of the Good Shepherd who has gathered all his sheep together, we pray. Amen.

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