Responding to a Wake-Up Call

Sermon preached by Michael Cheuk, Sunday, February 16, 2014.
Matthew 6:26-33; Matt 16:13-19

As many of you know, I’ve been trying to offer a “State of the UBC” address at one of our Wednesday night suppers.  But every time it’s on the schedule, we’ve had to cancel for bad weather or icy streets.  Some of you have told me, “I don’t think God wants you to give that talk!”  But I’ve found a way to fool God – I’m going to sneak it in to my sermon this morning.  If a blizzard comes out of nowhere or we lose our power in the next fifteen minutes, we’ll know that God really didn’t want me to give this talk!

All I want to do is give a report of what I’ve observed during my first year as your Senior Minister.  One thing I’ve noticed is that we’re a busy church, and there are lots of important and significant ministries taking place.  We just finished PACEM, opening our church to homeless men for the past two weeks, including some very, very snowy nights. Thanks to all of you who changed your schedules or gave an extra effort to sustain this ministry despite the weather.  As we hope to leave winter behind and head to spring, Alba is working on Jubilate’s upcoming tour during spring break.  Every Sunday morning, we offer English lessons to people from around the world. These are just some of the ministries at our church that are longstanding and important.

There are also some exciting new developments.  Starting this past fall, we have welcomed a Hispanic Bible study at the church on Sunday evenings.  And beginning in January, we’re partnering with Christian counselor Missy Hansen to provide her a room in our building every Monday for her practice.  We will soon be welcoming Randi McFarland, a graduate of BTSR, to serve as a ministry intern here.  In the last year or so, our young couples ministry has taken off, and we’re having a parent-child dedication next Sunday for seven young families and their eight young children.  Our youth student ministry is going strong.  Jubilate, our collegiate choir, is being built back up.  These are terrific things to celebrate, and I can go on to list others!

In the face of such good news, perhaps all of us were surprised by the church’s 2014 budget.  Perhaps some of us figured that with such good things going on, the church’s giving would grow, reversing the trend of shrinking budgets that we’ve seen in recent years.  Instead, faced with reduced pledges, the Finance Committee made some tough decisions.  After cutting the budget for various ministries and supplies in recent years, the committee realized that for 2014, we would now need to also make some cuts to personnel, reducing staff salaries and benefits.  So some of us were surprised by these reductions.  Others of us found something else even more surprising:  that faced with these cuts, the consensus of the church membership was:  instead of approving a reduced budget, give us the opportunity to pledge more to support a more generous budget.  And so that is the path we’re pursuing – and if anyone listening today at church or at home would like to pledge or revise a pledge to the church’s 2014 budget, I hope you’ll take a card from the pew, or call the church office.

Now, as important as these things are, whether we’re talking about the budget or about the good things going on at the church, I think these they only answer the question “what does your church do”?   I think it’s more instructive to start with the why question: why does our church exist?  Why UBC?

These past several weeks – with the winter weather that we’ve been having and all the school closings, I’ve been thinking about school buses a lot.  I want you to picture with me a bus – it could be a school bus, or a CAT (Charlottesville Area Transit) bus, or a University Transit Service bus.  Buses exist to transport people from point A to point B.  They offer different schedules on weekends than on weekdays.  Sometimes they add new routes or subtract old ones to meet changes in demand.  They do all this for the purpose of transporting people.  Buses are not meant to be the destination.  They aren’t meant for people to get on and stay on, going around the same block over and over again.  Also, buses know their destinations because they exist to transport passengers from one place to another.

Similarly, it is important for us to be clear about why churches exist.  Churches are not destinations to themselves; churches do not exist to build themselves up.  The word “church” is only mentioned twice in the Gospels, the first time in Matthew 16, when Jesus told Peter, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  Jesus will build his church.  Jesus never commanded his disciples to build or grow the church.  So what did Jesus command his disciples to do?  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ last words to his disciples consisted of this great commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Jesus sent out his disciples to make disciples.  When disciples are made and sent out, the church will grow.  We saw that in the book of Acts.  We see that today in places like China and Africa.  When we make disciples, the church will grow.  But when we try to build and grow the church, there’s no guarantee that we’ll end up with disciples.

So, here’s my working definition of the church.  The church is a

community of faith built by God and gathered by the Spirit,
committed to following Christ in loving God and loving neighbor,
commissioned for the purpose of making disciples and spreading the Kingdom of God.

Remember the good things that are happening with our youth group, young couples, and Jubilate?  I believe that they will just be short-term blips on the radar screen if they are not accompanied by authentic community, grounded by a commitment to Christ, and animated by Christ’s commission to make disciples.

Regarding our budget deficit, our $75,000 pledge challenge is only a stopgap measure.  Even if we meet the challenge this year, there’s always next year.  From my perspective, it is really not about the money, and it shouldn’t be about fixing the reduction of staff benefits and salaries.  That’s why I’m about to interview three congregational coaches who can help us not only to address our budget and giving challenges, but also to engage the whole congregation to re-clarify our vision, to claim our mission, and to join God’s cause.  This is a wake-up call to see if we have a big enough dream and a compelling enough vision to merit asking people to give sacrificially to a God-sized cause.  During WWII, everyone contributed to the war effort — from young men who went overseas, to women who entered the factories, to the elderly who tended victory gardens – because Americans knew the cause was worthy of sacrifice. Throughout UBC’s history, this congregation has proven that when there was a compelling need, God always provided the resources to meet the need, and more!

The church’s cause has always been the same.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray it: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  When Jesus told Peter that “on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus also added: “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”  Christ has already chosen the church as the vehicle to send God’s people out into the world.  We have the keys to bring the kingdom of heaven into all the world, and the gates of Hades will not be able to block or stop the church!

I think that’s why Jesus taught his disciples to seek first the Kingdom of God.  As human beings, we can get anxious about, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  As a church, we get worried about “What is our attendance?” or “What is our budget and giving?” and “What is our membership?”  They are important things, like food and drink and clothes, but they are not the most important things.  As disciples, we are called to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to us as well.  Our budget challenge is a wake-up call and an invitation to take a step of faith into God’s future for us.

I envision UBC taking steps toward becoming a church that not only pays attention to our attendance, budget and members, but also tracks the number of people engaged in discipleship small groups, or the number of people who are new or returning to the church, and tracks the stories of transformed lives.  I envision that at any day of the week and in any part of our city and county, UBC folks will be meeting to worship, to pray and care for each other, and to serve and minister in consistent and creative ways in their neighborhoods and communities.

Jesus invested three years of his life in twelve disciples before commissioning them as apostles to make disciples of all nations.  What if UBC invested in twelve individuals in discipleship for three years before we commission each of them to disciple twelve others?  If we continue this process, by the ninth year, UBC will have invested in and transformed the lives of more than 1000 disciples, each equipped and released to make more disciples.   Some of the people touched will become members of UBC.  Others may never darken our doors.  Some may worship with us on Sundays at 11 am.  We will encourage others to start their own fresh expressions of worship on Sundays in other locations so that they can reach the people that we can never reach in our sanctuary.  Success will not be measured by our seating capacity, but by our sending capacity.  Success will not be measured by how big our budget is, but how much of that budget is invested in our community.  Our goal will not be to increase our membership footprint, but to increase our ministry footprint.  Many of you will recall that during the decades of the 90’s and the “oughts,” UBC engaged in a series of successful campaigns to “Rebuilding God’s House.”  I envision that future history books will report that in the teens and twenties of the twenty-first century, UBC engaged in a campaign to “Building God’s People” which morphed into a campaign to “Expanding God’s Kingdom.”

So, let’s return to the image of the bus again.  Imagine UBC as a bus, and me as the bus driver.  This is what I would tell you.

Welcome to UBC!  We are all about movement, moving you from where you are to where God wants you to be.  We welcome you on board, and together we will seek first the Kingdom of God and learn how to be more like Jesus, to become the person that God has created us to be, so that we can love God more and love others more.  This bus is not the destination; it is only the training and deployment vehicle for God’s Kingdom.   And I would say that not all training will take place on the bus, and not everyone needs to travel on this bus.  After all, there are plenty of roads and paths where buses can’t go.  So we need to develop a platoon of bikes, a cadre of runners, a caravan of 4-wheel drive vehicles, and even a company of moms with baby joggers, all with the same goal of moving people to where God wants them to be.  So I’m not asking you to join this bus.  I’m asking you to join our movement.

Our movement is nothing less than joining the movement of God in bringing the kingdom of heaven on earth.  God is looking for disciples who are willing to be deployed as salt and light to push back the very gates of Hades in our community and in our world.  I’m not offering comfort or safety or security.  Instead, I’m offering a journey of adventure and risk.  But Jesus promised us that He will always be with us in this journey.  And I promise you that you will make a difference in this world for the sake of God’s Kingdom!

Now, that’s the kind of” bus driver” I want to be, and that’s the kind of cause I want to join.  Will you join me?

Amen.