“Jesus’ Graduation”

graduation-cap-and-diploma
Preached by Michael Cheuk, May 17, 2015
Taken from Luke 24:44-53 NIV

Welcome to UVA Graduation weekend! Everywhere you look, you’ll see students wearing their graduation robes and caps. University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn says that about 3000 students and 18,000 guests are expected to attend graduation ceremonies on the Lawn each day.

The graduation ceremony is often called “Commencement Exercises” – commencement meaning beginning or starting, but for graduates, it probably feels more like an ending than a beginning.

Someone once said at his high school graduation that this would be the last time when they all would be together in the same place at the same time. There is happiness and joy during a graduation ceremony, but oftentimes, the joy is mixed with sadness at the realization that things will never be the same.

Last Wednesday night, we had a graduation ceremony of sorts when we gathered to celebrate the retirement of Bob Badgett as our Associate Minister. It was a commencement, a beginning of a new chapter for the Bob and Patti Badgett and for UBC, but it also definitely felt like an ending of an era. After the meal, folks were invited to share their thoughts with Bob and Patti. We heard comments from our children, our senior adults, and all ages in between.

They shared funny stories. Diane Mundell recalled her time with Bob at a children’s music camp. They discovered that their cabin had mice. All the kids and the chaperones stood on tables and chairs while Bob ran around “capturing” mice with a pot and disposing them.

There were heart-felt comments. Lindsey Marshall told Bob how much she was going to miss him. Alba shared how Bob was like a brother to him.

Then there were other comments that I can’t repeat here, given by Chris Owen in his roasting of Bob . . . and other people. But it was all in good fun!

During the sharing time, several people spoke what was in many of our minds: “What will we do without you, Bob? We will miss you!”

In today’s Gospel Lesson, we have Luke’s account of Jesus’ last moments on earth before he was taken into heaven. That was, in a sense, Jesus’ graduation from his earthly ministry, when he left his disciples in order to return to the eternal presence and glory of God. During that event, I imagine the disciples thinking to themselves, “What will be do without you, Jesus? We will miss you!”

The Ascension of Jesus, which commemorates Christ’s return to God, is only described briefly in the Gospels of Luke and Mark. It is also described in the beginning of the book of Acts. There, Luke the author describes Jesus being taken up before the disciples very eyes, until a cloud hid Jesus from their sight (Acts 1:9). As we read these passages, we are often filled with questions. How was Jesus taken up into heaven? Did he literally levitate, like a magician . . . and just kept on going until he was out of sight? Or did the Gospel writers use metaphorical language to communicate something that our human language cannot adequately describe?

However we interpret these verses, in all the biblical accounts, there’s not much descriptive detail to Jesus’ ascension. Of the ten verses of our reading in the Gospel of Luke this morning, only half a verse is devoted to Jesus’ ascension: “He left them and was taken up into heaven.”  That’s the extent of Luke’s description. Maybe for Luke and for the community that he was writing for, they were less concerned with the question: “How did Jesus ascend or graduate into heaven?” and more concerned with another question: “What happens to the disciples (and the church) when Jesus is no longer with them physically?”

Last Wednesday night, many of our children and youth thanked “Mr. Bob” for his children’s sermons. When he was a child, Seamore Zhu sat in on many of Bob’s children’s sermons. Seamore is now a graduating senior in high school who will enter Dartmouth College this fall. He concluded his remarks to Bob by saying, “So, thanks again for what you’ve done for our church. I’d like to end by citing the biggest lesson I’ve learned from your children’s sermons: “The answer to every question is ‘Jesus’.” “Think about it. It’s true,” Seamore says.

To the question: “What happens to the disciples when Jesus is no longer with them physically?” The answer is “Jesus.” The disciples will continue on when they see Jesus as the key to understanding the Scriptures. In the moments before his ascension, Jesus was like a teacher giving a final tutoring session to his students before an exam. He opened their minds so that they could understand how he was the fulfillment of what was written about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.

“What happens to the church when Jesus is no longer with them physically?” The answer is “Jesus.” The church will grow and expand when the disciples give witness to Jesus, preaching the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations, starting in Jerusalem. “You are witnesses of these things,” says Jesus. The disciples will be witnesses not out of their own power. Instead, they will be clothed with power from on high. We will learn more about this next Sunday as we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes to empower the disciples to preach and to witness to the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ.

“What happens to the disciples and the church when Jesus is no longer with them physically?” The answer is “Jesus.” The disciples and the church will carry on because Jesus will continue to bless. Luke writes: “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

Last Wednesday night, in his closing comments, Bob Badgett blessed UBC and told us to continue to do what we’re doing. He gave this advice to our young children and even to our adults: “Just be yourself. God made you the way you are. You are wonderful. You’ve been wonderfully made and created, and allow the Spirit of God to express yourself and your gifts in the way that God made you. . . . My philosophy of life has always been: ‘It’s no big deal.’ We serve a God who is sovereign, who knows everything about us. He made this day, and He knows everything that is going to happen in it, so we don’t need to make it a big deal… It’s no big deal. It’s going to be OK. God will provide for you, even after we’re gone.”

Bob speaks with wisdom. In our lifetime, there will come many periods of transition and change. There will come a time when we will lose people that we dearly love, and we don’t know how we can go on after they are gone. We ask the question: “What will we do without them?” The answer is “Jesus.” God will provide, just as God has provided for us Jesus Christ our Savior and Messiah. It doesn’t take away the pain and the loss, but in faith, we trust that God will provide.

To the question “What will we do without Bob Badgett?” the answer is also “Jesus.” God in Christ will provide. Our sovereign God will provide for us, just as God provided for those first disciples and empowered them to be witnesses after Jesus was taken from them. The sovereign God will provide for University Baptist, just God has provided for us in the almost one hundred and fifteen years that UBC has been in existence. God will provide, by raising others to give the Children’s Sermons, others to step up and organize Vacation Bible School, others to minister among our children, our senior adults, and all ages in between. During this time, we have an opportunity to ask how we may grow in our faith to minister and serve in ways that Bob and Patti Badgett have shown and taught us.

In the Gospels, Jesus taught his disciples with a progression of methods. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus taught his disciples by the methodology of “I do, you watch.” In Luke 6, Jesus chose his twelve disciples, and they watched and listened as Jesus healed the sick and taught the crowds.

Later, Jesus transitioned his teaching methodology to “I do, you help.” In Luke 9, when Jesus multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish, he asked his disciples to help arrange the crowd in groups of fifty, and distribute the food to feed the five thousand who were there.

By Luke 10, Jesus sent out seventy-two of his disciples into nearby villages, and basically said, “You do, I’ll help” as Jesus empowered them to heal and cast out demons in his name.

Finally, here in Luke 24, the time has come for Jesus to tell his disciples, “You do, I’ll watch.” Jesus is now delegating full authority to his disciples. He is entrusting them with the job he had done. In this last phase, the disciples are now empowered with the Holy Spirit to continue on the earthly ministry of Jesus, even as Jesus ascends into the heavenly realm and watches over them.

Similarly, I trust that the Holy Spirit will empower all of us as we are entrusted with some of the jobs that Bob had while he was with us.

I remember when I was about eleven when my Mom asked me to “babysit” my younger sister for about half an hour while she ran an errand. I was so joyful and proud that Mom trusted me with such an important task! This meant that I was growing up and becoming a “man,” ready to take on greater authority and responsibility. Perhaps Jesus’ disciples felt the same way also, since our passage ends with the disciples worshipping him and returning to Jerusalem with great joy. They stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

Theologian David S. Cunningham writes: “Ascension Day is not so much about the physical act of ascension. . . Rather, it is concerned with the divine act of making space so that the mission of the church can begin. So long as God was in the world in human form, all eyes and hearts were fixed there. Jesus’ ascension makes space for the disciples to turn their gaze upon the world, where “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”[1]

On this Sunday, we acknowledge the graduation of the ministry of Bob and Patti Badgett, and their first Sunday of absence among us. But even more so, we celebrate the graduation of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and we worship with joy because we have been entrusted to carry on Jesus’ earthly ministry. That’s what Jesus wanted for his disciples, and I’m pretty sure that’s what Bob and Patti Badgett would want for University Baptist Church.

Therefore, let us go from this place praising God, who continues to bless us and provide for us to be witnesses to the risen and ascended Christ.

Amen.

[1] David S. Cunningham, Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, “Ascension of the Lord.”

“Abiding Love”

Preached by Rev. Rachel Johnson, May 10, 2015

Thank you for that lovely introduction Rev. Cheuk and for the invitation to be with you all today.  I was remembering recently one of the last times I attended UBC  as a UVA student.  It was the final Sunday before graduation, which I guess today is as well, and you were an Associate here delivering the sermon.  I remember you holding up a diploma and, referencing the stone called Ebenezer that the Hebrews had erected after God had helped them through a time of trouble, you told us the diplomas we were about to receive were our Ebenezers – hither by God’s help we had come, and God would lead us safely on.  I haven’t forgotten that sermon, though I can safely say that sitting out in the pews that day it never occurred to me that my path would lead me to be preaching in this pulpit today.

I have been thinking a lot about goodbyes lately.  It is natural, I suppose, as I prepare to change jobs and move from the place that has been my home for the last seven years, where I have made friends and built community.  My mind keeps turning over questions of what I want to do before I leave, and, more importantly, what I want to say to the people I love and who have loved me so well.  Now of course, with cellphones, gchat, skype, trains, planes, and buses, none of my goodbyes are final.  I will speak with all the people I love again, probably the next day after I move.  But all those thoughts were on my mind when I started reading today’s lectionary passage from the Gospel of John and realized that they are a part of Jesus’ own goodbye.  Nestled in the middle of a long discourse that spans chapters 13-17, our passage today is part of Jesus’ final words to his disciples before he is arrested and crucified.  The disciples didn’t know what was about to happen, but Scripture tells us that Jesus did and he knew he had to give them words to help ease their way, words that would sustain his frightened and grieving friends in the days to come, words that would communicate clearly all his hopes and expectations for how he wanted to be remembered by them:  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love,”  Jesus tells his friends.  “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

If you read through the entire four chapter discourse, this is what you hear Jesus saying over and over again:  If you love me, keep my commandments.  A new commandment I give you, love one another.  Love one another as I have loved you.  Over and over and over.  You certainly can’t accuse Jesus of being subtle.  But time was short, and the disciples didn’t have the best reputation for catching on quickly, and this was important.  Even if they forgot all the rest, there was one thing, one thing Jesus wanted to make sure they got – love one another.

Our passage today comes from the section where Jesus calls himself the “true vine” and uses the metaphor of grapevines to describe God’s love.  “I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”  I am grateful for this metaphor because frankly, without it I wasn’t quite certain what Jesus meant by all that abiding language in our passage when he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”  These are Jesus’ words of goodbye and he’s telling the disciples what he expects to remain after he is gone – he expects abiding love.  You see, trite as it sounds, God is love, Jesus shows himself to be God’s Son by living a life of perfect love.  We show ourselves to be Jesus disciples when, abiding in him as the branch abides o the vine, we bear the fruits of love.  This is the one thing.  This is the Gospel.  “A new commandment I give to you:  love one another as I have loved you.

What a great message to get to preach – and on Mother’s Day no less!  All I have to do is recite a Hallmark card poem on love, read you all the children’s story of the Runaway Bunny, and then sit down.  Except . . . except that Jesus doesn’t stop there.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.”  Leave it to Jesus to not let us off easy.  “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.” Try putting that on a greeting card and sending it with a box of chocolates.  That’s the kind of saying of Jesus that makes the preacher wish the lectionary reading ended one verse earlier.

I tried to come up with a good illustration or story to ease us in to this verse.  Something witty, and kind of lighthearted to make Jesus words a little more palpable, a little more relate-able.  Lyrics to Top 40 hits are always running through my head and if you try hard – ok, really hard – you can usually pull out some theology.  But I won’t subject you to any of the tortured hermeneutics I tried on Bruno Mars or Avicii.  Countless movies very powerfully and movingly capture this theme of laying down one’s life for another.  I crowd sourced this part of my sermon, asking for examples on social media and the responses came pouring in – Grand Torino, Dark Knight Batman series, the Matirx, LOST, the Lion King, Wrath of Khan, and Harry Potter.  Anyone of them would make an excellent sermon illustration.

But still I struggled with what to do with this passage.  The trouble is, I think Jesus means what he says – literally and unequivocally.  These are the final words Jesus is saying to his disciples before he goes to his death.  And despite their stumbling and fumbling, Jesus’ disciples knew that the path they had chosen could lead to their deaths as well.  Earlier, when Jesus told the disciples that he was preparing to go where they could not follow, Simon Peter said “Lord, why can I not follow you now?  I will lay down my life for you.”  When Jesus told the disciples that he had to return to Judea after so angering the crowds there that they were likely to kill him, Thomas, of great doubting fame, said “Let us go also, that we may die with you.”  For the disciples, to follow Jesus was to risk their lives.  And lest we think we live in a time where people are no longer killed for their faith, we need only to remember Christians in the hands of ISIS, Jews in a supermarket in Paris, and three Muslim students in their apartment in Chapel Hill.

But honestly, following Jesus is not a risk for me.  There is little chance of me losing my life for my faith.  Now, there are vocations where people are often asked to lay down their lives for another – soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and even priests and pastors in contexts very different from my own.  But not me.  If I am being realistic, the chance that there would be an occasion in my job or any other part of my daily comings and goings where I will be asked to lay down my life for another is slim.  So what am I supposed to do with Jesus’ words?  What claims does this passage make on me?  I think Jesus meant what he said, literally and unequivocally . . . and I think maybe, there is more than one way to lay down one’s life.

It’s Mother’s Day and it strikes me that the way that many of us can best understand this kind of self sacrificial love is by comparing it to the love of a parent for a child.  I love my mother dearly and I have numerous stories that demonstrate just how much she loves me, up to and including how she made me this stole.  She loves me so much, that I am certain that on this Mother’s Day she will forgive me for instead telling a story about my father.  I was in elementary school, probably about 7-8 years old, and for some reason I can’t remember, I was having a rough day and did not want to be at school.  Somehow I got the nurse to call my parents.  My dad came and took me to the doctor who, after a quick exam, said there was nothing medically wrong with me.  On the car ride home, I started to feel bad for the trouble I’d caused and I told my Dad I was sorry to make him leave work for nothing.  That’s when my Dad told me that there was nothing he could be doing that he would not drop if I needed him.  It was touching, but also, really? Nothing?  Knowing how sacrosanct Saturday college football was in our house, I asked with some skepticism, you would even come get me if Clemson was playing?  My father said yes, even Clemson football was not more important to him than me.  That’s when I knew he meant it.  Standing across from Mr. Jefferson’s university, we can question my father’s college allegiances, but greater love has no father than this, to lay down Clemson football for his daughter.

I tell that story because with the simplicity of a child it so fully captures the idea that there are things in life we love so much that by laying them down we demonstrate how much greater we love another.  It’s tempting to end here, and have us all leave with the warm fuzzies in our hearts.  But if I’m being honest with myself, and with you, if I did that, all I would be doing is returning this sermon to that Hallmark card and the tale of the Runaway Bunny.  When I was a child, this is how I could understand love, but now I am grown and know there are greater things we can be called upon to sacrifice – yes, even greater than college football.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.”  The love Jesus calls us to is a love that thinks of the other as much as we think of ourselves.  It’s a love that sacrifices self for another, sometimes by literally laying down our lives, sometimes by laying down the things that define life for us.  If we really think about it, there’s nothing new here.  Jesus couldn’t have said what he wants from us any plainer than when he gave the two great commandments, love God, love your neighbor as yourself.  And here’s where it gets hard, because Jesus is unequivocal.  He doesn’t set boundaries on this kind of love, doesn’t say some people qualify and others don’t.  I can imagine laying down my life for the people who mean more to me than life itself.  Can I imagine doing it for my neighbor?  Can I imagine doing it for a stranger? For my enemies?  To fully love myself, I think of the things that are essential to me, that define my sense of self and my place in the world – that define my life.  To love my neighbor as myself, can I imagine laying those essential elements to consider the life of another?

Following the recent riots in Baltimore, which happened a mere 20 miles from my home, I saw an image going around facebook that read, “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem for you personally.”  Now, I don’t mean to start a conversation here about the varying complexities of privilege, but what I hear in that statement is a similar question to what I hear in the Gospel today.  Can I lay down the things that define life for me, to consider the life of another?  Being a white, middle class, heterosexual woman beloved by my parents is my life, it is who I know myself to be.  Can I lay down my wonderful relationship with my mother to acknowledge that today is not just a day of celebration, but for many it is also a day full of grief for mothers and children lost, women who long to have children, and children of all ages who long to be loved by their mothers?  Can I lay down my life that I know is valued and loved to reflect on what it is like to believe my life is worthless?  Can I lay down my righteous assurance that I would never riot in the street to try to understand  what it would be like to feel so hopeless, helpless, and full of rage that I thought I had nothing left to lose?  Can I lay down my ability to get a civil marriage whenever and wherever I want, and consider what it must be like to have to argue before the highest court in the land for legal recognition?  Can I lay down that one thing that I have poured my life in to, that was built with the strength of my back and mortar of my own blood, sweat, and tears, if doing so could show my love for another?

The night of the riots in Baltimore, CNN interviewed Pastor Dante Hickman as his church burned behind him.  Earlier in the night Pastor Hickman had helped organize more than one hundred clergy in Baltimore to go out into the street and march for peace.  Talking with the reporter he explained that burning along with his church were sixty units of housing for senior citizens, affordable housing units, and a transitions center that provided job training and low interest loans.  The reporter asked why anyone would burn this and Pastor Hickman responded, “I think the reason someone chose to set this fire is the same reason these ministries are needed in this city.  There are a lot of people out here tonight laying blame, but I’m not interested in that.  When I look at this fire, I see revival.  I see a church that will rebuild and will continue serving the community that so desperately needs us.”  Abide in my love and you will bear the fruits of love, fruits that will last.

It was my housemate that said to me that asking what we are willing to lay down is the same as asking, what are we willing to stand up for?  I think that’s true.  But I also don’t think that’s all Jesus was saying here.  Here’s the thing – and it is especially for the graduates out there, as well as all of us – there actually are a lot of things in this world we sacrifice our lives for.  We sacrifice them for our jobs, for money, power, influence, for a sense of achievement, or a desire to feel valued, seen, wanted.  This world and plenty of people in it – some of them even well meaning – have no shortage of things that they will gladly let you sacrifice yourself for, that they will tell you you have a duty to sacrifice yourself for.  And over this cacophony of demands, as he prepares to lay down his own life, Jesus wants us to remember that there is just one thing, one thing worth laying our lives down for.  Each and every one of you is a beloved child of God and your life is too precious, too wonderful, to live and die for anything but love.  A new commandment I give you:  Love one another as I have loved you.  For it is only love that abides, only love that heals, only love that will redeem our world.  Amen.

“A Shepherding Love”

GentleStream180x135Preached by Dr. Michael Cheuk
Taken from John 10:11-18; Psalm 23 (NIV)

Many of you know that in a couple of days, several church members and I will be heading to Israel for ten days. As I was reading up on the trip, I was surprised to learn that even today, in Israel, flocks of sheep roam not just in rural pastures, but also in green spaces in urban settings, guided and directed by shepherds. Today, our assigned lectionary texts from Psalm 23 and the Gospel of John both deal with how God is our shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said.  As you may know, shepherding was an honorable occupation in Old Testament days during in Abraham’s time. But gradually, shepherding lost its social acceptability. According to Joachim Jeremias, a world-renowned professor of Near Eastern Studies, during Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised in everyday life, seen as second class and untrustworthy. They had no civil rights and were not admitted in court as witnesses. Rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains, and Jeremias notes: “The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called ‘my shepherd’ in Psalm 23:1.”[1]

Therefore, it must have been a shock for Jesus’ disciples to hear him say, “I am the good shepherd.” If Jesus were here today, he might choose to say, “I am the good undocumented  worker.” Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, he came and identified with those who were on the margins of society. He was born in a manger and his birth was announced not to kings and rulers, but to shepherds. During his ministry, Jesus associated with tax collectors and “sinners.” He healed lepers, demoniacs, and women who were considered unclean. He was executed on the cross between two thieves. When he was resurrected, he first appeared not to men, but to women, another group who also were not admitted in court as witnesses. Therefore, while it probably shocked his disciples, Jesus’ self-identification as a despised shepherd was really not that surprising, given God’s consistent and enduring love, care, and concern for those who were neglected and despised, those without power or wealth, those who were the target of discrimination and oppression. Jesus as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for precisely these people, people whom He lovingly called his sheep.

Since we no longer live in an agrarian society, most of us have do not know that much about sheep. Sheep get a bad rap as being stupid and dumb. But in her sermon “The Voice of the Shepherd,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells of an acquaintance who had actually grown up on a sheep ranch and could dispel the myth that sheep are dumb. It was actually the cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first, to show them that everything is all right. “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”[2]

Back in biblical times, and I’m guessing still today, several different flocks of sheep may end up in the same space or watering hole and get all mixed together. But their shepherds never worry about the mix-up. When it is time to go home, each one uses a distinct call: a whistle, a trill, a particular tune on a reed pipe. The sheep recognizes the call. They hear their shepherd’s voice and it is the only one they will follow. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me,” says Jesus.

What do we know about the shepherding love of Jesus? We know that God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to us, and anyone who believes and belongs to this Good Shepherd will have eternal life. We know that we’re all like sheep having gone astray, each one of us going our own way in sinful and destructive paths. But unlike the “hired hand” CEO’s who bail out of their sinking companies with golden parachutes, our Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Here, Jesus was talking about the cross on which He willingly died for the sake of rescuing us from the consequences of our sin. No one took Jesus’ life from Him; He laid it down of His own accord. Out of a shepherding love, Jesus freely chose to pay the price of our drifting away so that death is not our final destiny.  And on Easter Sunday, Jesus took up His life again in a glorious resurrection so that we too, might live in a new, resurrected life.  We also know that the shepherding love of Jesus extended not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles, those “other sheep not of this sheep pen.” Thank God for such universal love, for without it, we Gentiles would not be here this morning!

That’s what we know about the shepherding love of Jesus. And while we live in a society where there are so many voices vying for our attention, distracting us, seducing us onto paths that lead not to abundant life but to destruction, the voice of our Good Shepherd is always calling us back. Despite our sheep-like tendencies to go astray, to drift away from the path and the way, the shepherding love of Jesus will always seek us out and to lead us on God’s way.

The good news this morning is this: we may be sheep, but it is not about us. It is all about the Good Shepherd. It is all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are. We the sheep have a relationship with the Good Shepherd not because of what we’ve done, but because of what the Good Shepherd has already done and continues to do for us. All we’re called to do is to be still and to listen and hear the voice of our Good Shepherd and to follow.

Right now, I want to do something different. I want to lead you in a guided prayer exercise based on Psalm 23 so that you might experience what it is like to be still and listen for Jesus’ shepherding love.  I’d like for everyone in the sanctuary and those listening on the radio to be still and close your eyes.

In the midst of the silence, concentrate on your own breathing.

Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.  Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.
Imagine yourself in a green pasture, surrounded by budding flowers under a deep blue sky. Breathe in deeply the fresh air filled with the fragrances of lilac, honeysuckle, and roses.

Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.
Feel the cool, gentle breeze caressing your body and hear the rustling of newly spouted leaves.
See a gentle stream nearby, the rolling hills in the distance, and the cotton-candy strands of clouds in the sky.

Now hear a gentle voice behind you, quietly calling out your name.
In your mind’s eye, turn around to find Jesus, who looks at you with a warm smile.

Jesus tells you that He knows that you are burdened with many things, distracted by many demands, anxious about many matters.

He asks you to hold out your hands, and to name and place any worries, any distractions, any hurts, anxieties and to-do lists onto your open palms.

Jesus then tells you to follow him, and he walks slowly to the nearby stream.

Jesus kneels beside the stream, and asks you to do the same and to place your handful of burdens into the clear, still waters of the stream.

Feel the refreshing coolness of the water as it covers and surrounds your hands.

Feel the weight of your burdens lifted from you as they are carried away by the water.

See your burdens sink and dissolve into the bottom of the stream.

Tell Jesus what you are thinking and feeling right now.

Hear the words of Jesus speaking straight into your heart: “My child, I love you.  I have laid down my life for you.  Spend time to be with me, to know me, to hear my voice.”

Respond to Jesus’ invitation.

It is time to come back now.  Say goodbye to Jesus for now.

Concentrate on your breathing.  Breathe in.  Hold.  Breathe out.  Slowly open your eyes.

This morning, after we leave this place, may we open wide our ears so that we may hear and recognize the voice and experience the shepherding love of our Good Shepherd.  And through that reassurance, may we be led by the voice of our Good Shepherd’s as we reach out to those around us who need the love and care of Christ.  Amen.

 

[1] http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/.

[2] Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide.

 

“Jesus’ Hands and Feet”

William_Hole_Jesus_appears_to_the_disciples199x193

Preached by Michael Cheuk, April 19, 2015
Taken from Luke 24:36-48 NIV

Have you ever seen a ghost? Would you want to see one? I don’t know about you, but it is hard to wrap my engineering mind around the concept of ghosts. Just thinking about it gives me the heebie jeebies. But it helps me to understand why the disciples of Jesus were startled and frightened every time the resurrected Jesus appeared in their midst. No wonder Jesus always began by saying, “Do not be afraid!” and “Peace be with you,” because more often than not, Jesus’ disciples misperceived the risen Jesus as a ghost or some disembodied spirit.

The resurrected Jesus was no ghost. In our Gospel lesson this morning, when the disciples freaked out when they thought they saw a ghost of Jesus, He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When God raised Jesus from the dead, God raised his human, physical body into a new life. And throughout the centuries, in creeds and confessions, Christians have also believed in the resurrection of the body of believers.

For the Jews and early Christians, the physical is not separated from the spiritual. We don’t merely have a body; we are our bodies. God also values the physical body. The same God who created the universe by speaking it into being, could have easily saved sinful human beings with a verbal pronouncement or by the snap of a divine finger. Instead, God’s plan of salvation included the sending of God’s Son, Jesus, to earth as a human being with a body that felt hunger, thirst, and pain. We call this moment of God stepping into human flesh the incarnation, and we celebrate it on Christmas. During Easter, we celebrate the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Why is this important? If Jesus was bodily resurrected, and if the human body is important enough to be resurrected in some form for eternity, the human body ought also to be seen as significant and valuable in this life. If that’s true, then what we do with our bodies and what happens to our bodies are not insignificant or mundane matters.

After Jesus tells his disciples to look and touch his hands and feet, you’d figure that he would take advantage of this teachable moment to impart a profound lesson about his resurrection. Jesus does that, but before doing so, he had something a bit more important on his mind: “What’s for dinner?” “Yes! I’m resurrected and all, but do you have anything here to eat?” If that’s not proof that Jesus was a “Baptist” I don’t know what is! The first question asked by a Baptist in almost any church gathering is: Where’s the food?” Where two or more Baptists are gathered, there will be fried chicken and deviled eggs … or in this case, broiled fish.

The point I want to make this morning is this: our Christian faith is not just intellectual, it is not just a set of beliefs in our minds. No, the Christian faith is embodied; it requires flesh and blood. In order for others to see our faith, they have to see and feel our faith in action, through our hands and feet and our bodies. The Christian faith is not just concerned about what happens to us after we die; it is also concerned about what happens to us in this world while we are still living.

God cares about whether human beings and their bodies have enough to eat, or whether they eat too much to compensate for some other hunger in their lives. God cares about whether human beings and their bodies have adequate shelter and clothing. God cares about protecting vulnerable human beings and their bodies from being violated and exploited. God cares about how we treat our bodies, instructing us to care for our bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit and yet not make it an idol. God is concerned that our society shames us when our bodies do not measure up to the unrealistic and unhealthy body images so often portrayed in the media. God is concerned when we ostracize those in our society whose bodies are no longer young and productive.

Jesus opened the minds of his disciples about what was written him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. Today, Jesus needs to open our minds about the fact that even as the Messiah, Jesus is a divine Savior who got hungry and thirsty, who shed His blood as a sign of forgiveness of sins, and whose body hung on a cross until he expired. While he was morally perfect, his body was imperfect, wounded, punctured and scarred. Jesus’ hands and feet bore the fragility of his human body and the marks of divine forgiveness.

That is the Messiah to whom we give witness.

We witness to this Messiah with words, which requires our diaphragm to inhale and exhale air in and out of our lungs, and our mouths and vocal chords to enunciate words.

We witness to this Messiah with music, which requires bodily coordination and control, whether in singing or playing an instrument.

We witness to this Messiah with dance and expressive bodily movements, which reflects the joy and grace of God’s creative handiwork.

We witness to this Messiah by our bodily presence, as Barbara Newlon reminded me last week as she talked about how she makes it a point to spend time with her neighbors at the Colonnades.

And this weekend, around 250 youth from churches all over Virginia and even a church from South Carolina, witnessed to this Messiah by embodying Jesus’ hands and feet, feeding the hungry at Ronald McDonald house, clothing the naked by working at our Central VA Baptist clothing center, by painting walls and building steps and weeding gardens, so that our neighbors may have a better place to live.

They also spent the afternoon engaged in prayer walks on UVA grounds – the Rotunda, the lawn and the amphitheater – and around the medical center – at the children’s hospital, the main hospital.  At the ER, someone asked what the group what they were doing. When they found out, they asked the group to pray for their family member in the ER. So the group surrounded the family members and prayed. The prayer walkers also prayed for the families of Hannah Graham and other students killed and assaulted.  It was quite a sight to see all these young bodies with blue T-shirts walking, watching, and praying as they witnessed to our risen Savior.

And people noticed. One of the recipients of a Mission Madness project – a Love INC client sent an email via our website: I am so grateful. The young people came and did amazing things!  They were so much fun, and so enthusiastic and giving, and the adults with them were amazing.  I am still amazed at how much got done in such a short period of time.  The kids not only worked hard, they clearly are bright, kind and loving.  Just having them here was sheer joy. Thanks so much for such a wonderful program for all of us.  It’s very hard for me to ask for help, but the sheer enthusiasm and caring of the people who gave is absolutely wonderful. What wonderful people, all of them. God bless you all!

Finally, this Mission Madness weekend could not have taken place without the committed bodies of many of our church members, who worked hard to organize the weekend, to feed all our guests, to oversee work sites, to serve as sanitation engineers, etc. Several chaperons from other churches spoke to me to comment on just how welcoming you were and how much they felt right at home at UBC.

The risen Christ was present in Charlottesville this past weekend, and He had over 300 pairs of hands and feet. We are witnesses to these things, and we give God the praise and the glory!

Amen.

“Show Me!”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, April 12, 2015
Taken from John 20:19-29 and Acts 4:32-35

We live in a skeptical age. Maybe it’s all the paid advertising we see that makes us cynical of a product’s claims. Maybe it’s the stories we hear of people scamming others. Maybe we’re now trained to read customer reviews of products and services before we commit and buy. Whatever it is, we’re often distrustful of statements and claims made by others until we test them and verify for ourselves. We want corroboration. We want proof. It’s as if we all live in Missouri, the “Show Me” state. I was walking in the hallways of Old Cabell Hall one day and saw an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper taped to a door with these words printed in block letters: “Skepticism is a Virtue.” Underneath that message was a handwritten reply scribbled in blue ink: “I doubt it.”

Last Sunday, Christians throughout the world celebrated the resurrection of Christ, and we proclaim that over two thousand years ago, God raised this human being from the dead. On this first Sunday after Easter, our assigned Gospel lesson from John recounts the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples. Thomas gets a bad rap here because of his skepticism of the news of Jesus’ resurrection, but his doubt was no different than the other disciples. There was a heavy dose of skepticism among all of Jesus’ male disciples regarding the news of his resurrection. Surely, they would have heard from the women who relayed the message that Jesus was raised. But they apparently doubted the women’s incredible news. Instead, they huddled together and locked themselves in a room, fearful that those who crucified Jesus would also come after them.

When Jesus first appeared to them (initially without Thomas), Jesus gave his disciples peace, breathed into them the Holy Spirit, and sent them out into the world. A week later, what happened? The disciples were still gathered in a locked room. This time, Thomas was with them. This time, Jesus specifically invited Thomas to touch his nailed scarred hands and punctured side so that he could stop doubting and start believing. Jesus showed Thomas his glorified, resurrected body, together with his wounds. Having seen with his own eyes, Thomas proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” John the Gospel writer records Jesus answering Thomas, but really addressing words to generations of disciples who, like us, will come after Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The resurrection is not an easy thing to believe, and Jesus knew that. I want to believe in Jesus’ resurrection because I’d like to think that after I die, because of my faith in the risen Christ, I too, will bodily rise one day. I don’t know what a post-bodily resurrection life is like, but I’ve often imagined that I would live in a similar way that I’m living now, except without sorrow, pain, loss or tears. But’s that not resurrection. That’s only resuscitation, the bringing back to life of a person who will live more or less the same as he has in the past. You may remember that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. But Lazarus was not resurrected; he was only temporarily resuscitated. When Lazarus came out of the grave, he was still bound by his burial cloths, the markers of death. Resuscitation is like a caterpillar spinning a cocoon, and after a period, emerging out of the cocoon . . . still as a caterpillar.  That is resuscitation.

Resurrection is different; it involves transformation. When Jesus was resurrected, his burial cloths were found neatly folded in the tomb. And while the scars were still there, Jesus’ body was transformed so that it could materialize in the midst of a locked room. Resurrection is like a caterpillar spinning a cocoon, and after a period, emerging of the cocoon as a beautiful butterfly. When the apostle Paul wrote about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he said, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.”

In order to believe in the resurrection, we must be willing to be changed. Despite the disciples’ initial skepticism, eventually they believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and their lives were radically changed. Peter changed from denying knowing Jesus to boldly preaching about Jesus during the day of Pentecost. The risen Christ encountered Saul, a Pharisee persecuting Christians, and transformed him to Paul, the greatest missionary spreading the Gospel of Christ.

This transformation takes place not only on an individual basis, it also takes place on a communal basis. We find in the book of Acts, the community of Jesus’ followers transformed. No longer were they huddled within the four walls of a locked room, shielded from the world. Instead they were sent out by God’s Spirit to become bold witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples preached, taught, and performed healing just like Jesus. They were united, not just in their beliefs, but they experienced racial, generational, and socio-economic unity. They took care of one another and they voluntarily shared everything. They weren’t trying to make a political statement; they were just living out of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection into their world.

Of course the early church was not perfect; the letters of Paul certainly addressed issues of disunity and factions within the churches. But Paul also described the church as “the body of Christ.” History has also shown that when the body of Christ practices resurrection, it has a way of showing even the skeptics the truth and reality of Christ’s resurrection.

According to Daniel Clendenin, the early Christians had a well-known and well-deserved reputation for social generosity that built bridges of community rather than walls of separation. . . . . The pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (ruled AD 361–363), who vehemently opposed Christians and stripped them of their rights and privileges, still acknowledge that while his own government could not meet the needs of the poor, the persecuted Christians not only took care of their own, but looked after the poor of any faith.[1]  The early church grew by leaps and bounds not only by their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection; they showed the truth and reality of Jesus’ resurrection by their transformed life together in community for the sake of their neighbors.

A couple of weeks ago, Blake Tommey, Director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries at UVA, wrote an article for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship magazine about the transformation that took place at Tabernacle Baptist, a 128-year-old church, located in the Fan District in downtown Richmond. As the neighborhood changed in the 60’s and 70’s, the church declined an offer to move to the growing western suburbs of Richmond. By the time Sterling Severns arrived in 2004 as their new pastor, Tabernacle was struggling with an aging, declining membership, with no children, and a facility in desperate need of repair.

In his article, Tommey writes: Several years ago, Sterling Severns received a phone call from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel that three families of Karen refugees from Burma (now Myanmar) had been residing in Richmond for six months without a place to worship. The very next month, the families filled an entire pew in the church’s sanctuary on World Communion Sunday for their first worship service.

After more than seven years of the church welcoming the Burmese newcomers, families of Chin, Karen, Kachin and Lisu refugees now comprise a quarter of Tabernacle’s congregation, and the entire community is exploring what it means to partner in renewing the vision of church and the life of the city of Richmond. … Each Sunday during the 11 a.m. service, each adult and child leading worship is instructed to pray, read scripture or offer testimony in their native language, without translation. While both communities initially struggled with the language barrier, they found that God’s healing and transformation did not depend on language.

Through partnering with many young families from Burma, Tabernacle has also learned what new life means in a more literal sense, namely through the children who now laugh, scream and boisterously fill the hallways once again. In fact, Severns said, children are the most crucial partners in renewing God’s world, which is why children of all ethnicities populate pulpits, conversations and other realms of leadership within the congregation.

“Our partnership with refugees from Burma is not a ministry of the church, it is the church,” Severns explained. “We’re raising our children together. The pews are full of all kinds of ethnic groups. On any given Sunday, the doxology could be in one of seven languages, untranslated. We’re being church together. We had been praying for years that life would come once again, and, lo and behold, it came by way of Burma.”[2]

And by the way, Tabernacle Baptist is the church that trained and recently ordained one of our own, Julie Gaines, to the Gospel Ministry.

To the skeptics who demand, “Show me the risen Christ,” I would point to Tabernacle Baptist as an example of a church being the body of Christ striving to live the truth and the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. They are a community that is practicing resurrection and being transformed to experience racial, generational, and socio-economic unity.

On this Sunday after Easter, I believe that Jesus invites us to practice resurrection, as individuals and as a church. God’s Spirit sends us out into the world to be the body of Christ. We are commissioned to be Christ’s body, scarred yet transformed, to care for one another and to be sent out so that we might show the world that Jesus Christ is alive!

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Amen.

 

Go now with the blessing of God, and as you go,
May the risen Christ grant us peace
May the risen Christ give us the Spirit
So that we may be sent forth to be a transformed community
living and practicing resurrection.

We’ve heard about how the first disciples shared everything they had so that there were no needy persons among them. We come now to the time in the worship service in which we share our resources to meet the needs of those among us. Your offering this morning will support the ministries of University Baptist including our college students and Operation Mission Madness this coming weekend.

This month, we are also collecting contributions for national missions. Our goal is $3000, and the money will support the Cooperative Baptist ministry in Nada, Kentucky, one of the 20 poorest counties in the United States. You can make a contribution by using the envelopes located in the pew racks.

Please prayerfully consider your financial support as I offer this prayer of dedication…

 

[1] Dan Clendenin, “They Enjoyed The Favor of All the People”, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20090413JJ.shtml

[2] Blake Tommey, “Being Church Together: Richmond congregation finds renewal among Burmese refugees,” http://cbfblog.com/2015/04/07/being-church-together/.

Easter Sunday – From Passion to Promise

Preached by Michael Cheuk, April 5, 2015
Taken from Mark 16:1-8 

And so, we come to the end of our journey to the cross. This week, we journeyed with Jesus through his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through his last Supper, his crucifixion and his death and burial. We often call this Passion Week for the emotional tumult of these events and the love of Jesus that propelled him to endure it all. On Good Friday, Jesus died on the cross, and for the three women, there was only one more thing to do: preparing Jesus’ body for burial.

These women came to the tomb out of their own passion, a love mixed with sorrow, so that they might anoint his body. I suspect they felt a sense of dread and obligation, facing a task they would have preferred to avoid. The weight of that dread, added to their grief, was as heavy as the stone that blocked the entry to the tomb.

Who among us hasn’t felt the dread of facing up to some task we’d rather avoid? The children among us have probably dragged their feet when told to clean their rooms. Many of us may still dread the idea of working on our taxes – especially the accountants! And these obligations seem trivial when compared to the heavier stones of life. Some among us face far weightier challenges of broken relationships, uncertain medical treatments, or creating a “new normal” after a life-shaking loss.

Yet despite the available excuses, as soon as the sun rose, these three women summoned the courage to do what they dreaded. And as they headed off, they wondered, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” This stone is the women’s biggest obstacle.  After all, what good will their spices do if they can’t even get to Jesus to anoint his body? Yet these women walked on, strengthened not only by the courage to do this task but also the faith that help would come.

Given how easily we humans can be discouraged and how good we are at making excuses, the women’s confidence and determination is amazing. Maybe we should think of it as one of the Easter miracles. And each time we take steps to face – not run away from, not hide from – our obstacles, maybe we should think of it as an Easter miracle. When any of us can face addiction and take steps toward addressing it – even without knowing who will roll the stone away – it is an Easter miracle. When we can speak words of reconciliation – without knowing who will roll that stone away – it is an Easter miracle. When any of us gathers the strength to face a medical procedure or when any of us makes dinner for one after decades of cooking for two, it is an Easter miracle.

When the three women arrived at the tomb, what did they find? The stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, who proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised! Jesus was alive! He had predicted that he must be killed, but he also promised that in three days he would rise again. And Jesus was right! Death could not contain him, and neither could a tomb.  The tomb was now empty, and Jesus left a message for the young man to tell these women: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Do you remember what Jesus told his disciples at the night of the Last Supper? Right after the supper, Jesus foretold his death and in Mark 14:28, Jesus promised his disciples: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” On that Easter morning, the messenger in the empty tomb told the women to tell the disciples that Jesus was making good on His promise and going ahead of them to Galilee, which was their home, the region where Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching, teaching, feeding, healing. “I’m going ahead to meet you back home, just as I promised” was what Jesus wanted to communicate to these women and his disciples.

When Thea and Wes were little, we often took them swimming at Robbie and Judy Gough’s home – as have many other UBC families. As babies, they crawled around on the steps with protective arms – ours and Judy’s – nearby. When they grew older, they began exploring the water and taking their first strokes and kicks. As their comfort level grew, they eyed the diving board, an exciting but scary challenge. After they worked up their nerve, they inched their way down the diving board, then gulped, and jumped. Did they jump into the deep end alone? No way. Beth had gone first (and it was mostly Beth, not me!) and was treading water, waiting to catch them and give them the push they needed to make it safely out of the water.

In the same way, the risen Christ went ahead of his disciples waiting for them to dive into the dawn of a totally new world, a world where life defeats death, where love conquers hate, where right overturns wrong, where joy will lift all sorrow. But that first dive into this new reality takes courage. The women on that first Easter morning went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. We know that eventually, their fear subsided and they did tell the disciples. What they discovered was that throughout it all, Jesus was already ahead of them, waiting to catch them and give them the push they needed to make it safely through.

On that first Easter morning:
As the women went to buy the spices to prepare his body, Jesus went ahead of them.
As the women walked toward the tomb with heavy hearts and questions, Jesus went ahead of them.
As the women faced alarming developments and words that made no sense to them, Jesus went ahead of them.
As the women returned home in silence, Jesus went ahead of them.
As the women journeyed, perhaps slowly, perhaps quickly, from grief to joy, from passion to promise, Jesus went ahead of them.

Easter pronounces that the passion, the suffering, the sin, the injustice of this world will not have the last word. Easter is the proclamation of what God in Christ has done for us, and a promise for what God will do to redeem our world. Christ on the cross has forgiven us of our sin. God’s power has raised Jesus from the dead and rolled away the stone of the tomb. The destructive powers of this world have been given notice that their time is ending. Death has been given a death sentence. And God’s grace invites us to go back to Galilee, to go home and to live life with the stone rolled away; to live life as people changed by the events of Easter.

Today, Skyler has jumped into the waters of baptism, where Jesus has gone ahead of her. The risen Christ will go on ahead of her throughout her journey of faith, and we know where her eternal home will be. So it is with all who have been baptized with Jesus into His death and resurrection.

On this Easter Sunday, we celebrate the fact that the risen Christ is alive and out in the world! The risen Christ goes ahead of us, with the promise that His resurrected presence will be waiting for us even in the midst of our passion, our sorrow, our pain. The risen Christ goes ahead of us out in the neighborhood preaching, teaching, feeding, healing, and we will see Him when we join Him there in ministry and witness. The risen Christ promises that when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, He has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us to welcome us home.

Because the risen Christ goes before us and calls us to follow, we are invited to live changed lives, transformed from passion to promise as a people of resurrection. Because today, in faith, we celebrate the fact that God raised Jesus from the grave! Death is dead! Love is alive! And the world will never be the same! Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Amen.

Words Worth Hearing: Hosanna!

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 29, 2015
Taken from Mark 11:1-11 (NIV)

Today is “Palm Sunday” and our New Testament passage from the Gospel of Mark has often been labeled in most Bibles as Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry.”  Jesus’s entry has the feel of a victory parade, like welcoming soldiers home from World War I and II, like celebrating the winners of the Super Bowl. Indeed, this parade of Jesus had many of the features of the triumphal processions that took place in the Roman Republic and Empire around the time of Jesus.

In ancient Rome, a Triumph was a civil ceremony and religious rite held to celebrate publicly the success of a military commander who had led Roman forces to victory in the service of the state. In order to have a triumphal procession in your honor, you had to be a Roman magistrate, who won a major land or sea battle in your province, killing at least 5,000 of the enemy and ending the war.

On the day of his public celebration, the Roman general wore a crown of laurel and the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga that identified him as near-kingly or near-divine. He rode in a four-horse chariot from the Triumphal Gate to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, processing through the streets of Rome adorned with garlands and lined with people shouting, “Io triumphe,” which means “Hurray, for the Triumph!” In this procession, the honoree would be accompanied by his army, his captives, and the spoils of the war. At the Temple of Jupiter, he would offer the spoils of his victory and sacrifice his captives to the image of Jupiter. Thereafter, he would be described as the “man of triumph” for the rest of his life.[1]

Granted, these triumphs mostly took place in an era before the birth of Jesus. However, according to scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, during the time of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria, would regularly enter into Jerusalem leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. While technically, this procession was not a Triumph in the classical Roman sense, it was a display of Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. It was a powerful reminder to the subjugated Jews that they were under the rule of Rome. That reminder was especially needed during Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier empire.[2]

So, at the beginning of this particular Passover festival, two parades entered Jerusalem. One entered from the west from Caesarea, led by Pontius Pilate and his soldiers, exerting their presence and reminding the people of the power of Rome. The other entered from the east from Bethphage and Bethany, led by Jesus and his disciples. For a long time, I assumed that the triumphal entry of Jesus was just a spontaneous occurrence. Only recently I notice that Jesus gave very specific and detailed instructions to his disciples to prepare for his arrival. Either Jesus could foresee what was available to him in the next village, or he had made prior arrangements. Either way, I don’t think there was anything accidental about this parade. Jesus was very deliberate in the way he entered the Holy City.

On this particular Passover, many of the Jewish pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem placed their expectations of a powerful Messiah onto Jesus. They were ready for their version of the ancient Roman Triumph, to celebrate publicly the success of a military commander like King David, who would lead the Jews to victory over the Romans. On the surface, it looked like Jesus was going to meet their expectations. Sure, it was only a cut-rate version of a Roman triumphal entry, but to a subjugated people desperate for a deliverer, it was close enough.

However, if you look carefully, Jesus took the people’s expectations and turned them upside down. Instead of riding on a four-horse war chariot, Jesus rode on a colt or a donkey. Jesus wasn’t accompanied by an army, only by a ragtag group … some fishermen, a tax collector, suffering women and men who’d been healed of diseases, ordinary women and men whose lives were changed by Jesus. When Jesus finally entered the Temple in Jerusalem, he didn’t make any sacrifices, he didn’t proclaim any declarations or slay any enemies. The Gospel of Mark described the scene in the most anti-climactic way: “Jesus looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

The discrepancy in these details did not bother the crowds. In their joy, they followed the tradition of the Roman Triumph by adorning the road with branches – perhaps of palms and garlands – that they had cut in the fields. They also laid down their cloaks on the path for this man of triumph. Instead of crying out “Io Triumphe!” these Jewish peasants and pilgrims cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Originally, the word hosanna meant “save, now!” But by the time of Jesus, hosanna became a general shout of adoration and praise. Many truly adored and praised this man. They had high expectations of Jesus. He would bring them victory and usher in a powerful, political kingdom like their father David. And so with exuberance and joy they cried out, “Hosanna! Hurray! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Of course, not all Jews were exuberant and joyful. There were the Sadducees, wealthy Jews who welcomed the Roman occupiers and were in turn rewarded with positions of power. Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem had all the marks of a political insurrection, and the Sadducees could not afford a peasant uprising. Then there were the Pharisees, devout Jews who decried Jesus as a heretic and blasphemer who threatened their cherished religious traditions. In the Gospel of Luke (19:40), some of Pharisees along the processional path demanded that Jesus rebuke his disciples for shouting “Hosanna!” To them, Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”

In a world where, on most days, many people struggled to make ends meet, suffered the pain of loss and death, felt the weight of oppression, they needed a day to celebrate and to feel hopeful. Therefore, on this day, no one would hush the “Hosannas!”; no one would censor the crowds. Jesus knew that very soon, another crowd would turn against him, and this “Man of Triumph,” would turn into the “Son of Man” and be delivered into the hands of those who would kill him. Very soon, Roman soldiers would place on Jesus not a crown of laurels, but a crown of thorns and a purple robe, and mockingly call out, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Very soon, even Jesus’ own disciples would flee and disown him. Very soon, instead of sacrificing his captives to the image of Jupiter, Jesus himself would be sacrificed while crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those days would come soon enough. But not on this day. On this day, let the celebration take place. The crowds might not truly know what they are celebrating, but on this day, not even Jesus was going to stop them. Not on this day.

It’s easy to fault the crowds for being so fickle. It’s easy to fault the disciples for being so faithless. Where were their “Hosannas” when Jesus was betrayed? Where were the supportive crowds when Jesus was falsely accused? Where were the disciples when Jesus suffered humiliation? When he died on the cross? But we must remember that they had not yet experienced Easter, like we have. We have the advantage of knowing how this story will end. While the crowds cried, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David,” we are a people who know that the upside-down Kingdom that Jesus was ushering in would be one where the first will be last, and the greatest, the least. We are a people who know that God surpasses all our expectations. We are a people who know that God’s victory will come through Christ’s suffering and death, so that the “Hosannas!” of Palm Sunday must go through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before arising to the “Alleluias!” of Easter Sunday.

We’re usually pretty good at going from the “Hosanna!” of one Sunday straight to the “Alleluia!” of the following Sunday. But here’s the question: “How can we live a ‘Hosanna- filled’ life between Sundays, through the Maundy Thursdays and the Good Fridays of our lives?” Where are our “Hosannas” when life, other people, and even God do not meet our expectations?  How do we offer adoration and praise in the midst of the pain and tragedies of life? That’s why on this Palm Sunday, “Hosanna!” is a word worth hearing, not from God to us, but from our lips to God; not just on Sundays, but every day in between.

Several years back, Ann Weems wrote a poem called “Between parades.” She writes:

We’re good at planning!
Give us a task force
and a project
and we’re off and running!
No trouble at all!

Going to the village and finding the colt,
even negotiating with the owners
is right down our alley.

And how we love a parade!
In a frenzy of celebration
we gladly focus on Jesus
and generously throw our coats
and palms in his path.

And we can shout praise
loudly enough
to make the Pharisees complain.
It’s all so good!

It’s in between parades that
we don’t do so well.
From Sunday to Sunday
we forget our Hosannas.
Between parades
the stones will have to shout
because we don’t.[3]

 

During this week, let us not forget our Hosannas.

On this day, we shout “Hosanna!” to welcome Jesus who comes as our Messiah not just to rule over others, but to upend our expectations, and transform and rule over our lives.

In the next days, let us shout “Hosanna!” to welcome Jesus who comes as our Savior not just to save us from our enemies, but to save us from ourselves – our sin, our faults, our prejudices, and our fears.

On this Thursday, let us shout “Hosanna!” to welcome Jesus who comes as our Deliverer not just to take us out of suffering, but to enter into our suffering by delivering his body and blood to strengthen us on the journey.

On this Friday, let us shout “Hosanna!” because even when we have forsaken Jesus in his time of need on the cross, Jesus will not forsake us in our time of need.

On this day, and every day, let us shout “Hosanna!” because Jesus Christ is worthy of our adoration and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/606065/triumph and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_triumph

[2] Marcus Borg, John Dominc Crossan, The Last Week: The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem, Kindle Edition, Loc. 145-152.

[3] Ann Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem, (Westminster, John Knox Press, 1993), p. 76.

Words Worth Hearing: You Will Know Me

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 22, 2015
Taken from Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV)

Today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah centers on the notion of covenant. Covenants in the Old Testament were based on what historians have called “suzerainty treaties.” In ancient times, a suzerainty treaty was a solemn agreement made between two groups of people, many times between two parties of unequal status and power, like between a powerful, sovereign people and neighboring subservient regions. This treaty bound the two parties into mutual obligations: the suzerain allowed the neighboring subjects to live on a grant of land and promised military support and protection over the land. In exchange, the subjects were expected to follow the laws set down by the suzerain and to pay homage and tributes to their lord. Blessings on the subjects would occur from following the treaty. Dire consequences, or curses, would occur if the subjects broke the stipulations of the treaty, or if the subjects pledged their allegiance to another lord. In medieval times, a feudal lord functioned in a similar manner to a suzerain, offering protection to vassals who paid tribute in order to continue living on the land that belonged to the lord.

In Old Testament times, covenants between God and God’s people were understood in the context of these ancient suzerainty treaties. A covenant was an agreement between God (the lord) and the ancient Israelites (the vassals), in which God promised to protect them if they kept God’s law and were faithful to God. God made a covenant to Abraham and his descendants to live in a promised land. After God freed the Israelites from another sovereign (Pharoah), God made a covenant with them to be their Lord. The “ten commandments” were the opening words of that covenant carved in tablets of stone. In Exodus 29:45-46, the Lord says, “I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” Later, the people of God understood Jerusalem to be the city of God, and the Temple as the place where this sovereign LORD dwelled among them. Because of that, some assumed that Jerusalem would never fall into the hands of enemies of God’s people, because the protection of their almighty sovereign would always be with them.

That was a wrong assumption. Jeremiah was a prophet called by God to remind God’s people of their part of the covenant.  He was nicknamed the “weeping prophet” because he repeatedly warned the Israelites of the impending disaster due to their sin in breaking God’s covenant and worshiping false gods. Jeremiah was the bearer of bad news that nobody wanted to hear. They ignored Jeremiah and as a result, they broke the covenant made with God.

Around 600 years before the birth of Christ, the Babylonians lay siege and captured Jerusalem, the holy city of God; destroyed the Temple, the dwelling place of Yahweh; and exiled God’s people from the Promised Land. In the eyes of many of the Jews, God had abandoned them to their enemies. God had “left the building.” So now that Jeremiah’s prophesies had come true, and the people were reaping the consequences of their sin, what words of the Lord would Jeremiah now utter? Would he gloat? Would he say, “I told you so!”? Would God say, “Ha! That’s what you get for breaking my covenant!”?

What happens when a marital relationship falls apart? What happens when the vows and promises so eagerly and earnestly exchanged “to love and honor” each other are violated and broken by one of the parties? When I’ve counseled couples who were struggling in their marriage, I’ve seen how, in their lives, the first flames of love have been reduced to smoldering coals of resentment. I’ve heard many of them say: “I’ve been hurt and betrayed. My heart is hardened. We’re going in different directions. I don’t know this person any more, and this person doesn’t know me. We are two strangers living in one house.” Sometimes, one of them will say, “Forget it! I’m out of this relationship!”

One might expect God to say the same thing to the wayward Israelites. Instead, the Lord God said, “The days are coming, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.” In those days, a husband had much greater power in the marital relationship, and could write a bill of divorce if he no longer fancied his wife because of some “indecency” in her (Deuteronomy 24:1a). But in a surprising and unexpected turn, the Lord God would NOT act that same way toward God’s people. Instead of saying, “Forget it! We’re done!”, the One who had all the power in this relationship declared, “I won’t spare you the consequences of sin. But regarding our relationship, let’s try again, and let’s do it differently this time.”

A marriage, or any other relationship for that matter, veers into dangerous territory when each partner keeps a record of all the times when the other person “broke the rules” and messed up. Consider the story of a couple, married for 15 years, who began having more than the usual disagreements. For instance, he was growing increasingly annoyed with her sloppiness, and she was bothered by the way he was late to everything. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the husband had. For one month they planned to drop a slip of paper into his and hers “Fault” boxes. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The man was diligent in his efforts and approach: “leaving the jelly top off the jar,” “wet towels on the shower floor,” “dirty socks not in hamper,” on and on until the end of the month. The woman was equally diligent about writing notes for his box. At the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The wife reflected on what she had done wrong. Then the husband opened his box and began reading dozens of identical notes.  The first one read, “I love you!” The second one read, “I love you!” In fact, all of them read, “I love you!”

During the time of Jeremiah, when God had every right to recall and recount each sin of God’s people, instead God chose to say, “I love you!” In the Old Testament, no less than eight times does God pronounce: “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In this passage, God says, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” It is God’s way of saying over and over again, “I love you!” that aims to open the minds and soften the hearts of God’s people. God is saying, “I want you to know me.”

In ancient times, people thought the gods were incomprehensible, inscrutable, fickle, and capricious. But here, we have the Lord God of Israel who says, “You will all know me.” The Hebrew word for “know” is yadá and it refers not just to head knowledge; yadá is knowledge based on experience and relationship. This is not knowledge about God; this is intimate, personal knowledge of God that reveals the depth of God’s heart while at the same time acknowledging an inexhaustible and uncontrollable mystery.

“They will all know me” declares the Lord, “from the least of them to the greatest.” All people — regardless of race, gender, social economic status — will have the same personal, intimate knowledge of God. No one group of people has an “in” with God, which means in God’s eyes, we are equal: equally flawed, equally sinners, equally loved, equally forgiven. This knowledge of God becomes a basis for reconciliation among people of different ethnic communities and races, of different backgrounds and perspectives. Given what happened here on the Corner Wednesday with Martese Johnson, it looks like we all have a ways to go toward having a knowledge of God that leads to the reconciliation among the peoples.

The knowledge that God talks about requires vulnerability. You can’t be known from a distance. You can only be known if you’re willing to bridge the gap between you and your beloved, if you’re willing to be deeply transparent, and if you’re willing to forgive. I think that’s why God says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Now, I don’t think this is a case of divine “forgive and forget.” The Hebrew word for “remember” means “to bring to the present” or “to make present.” Therefore, when God forgives our sins, God doesn’t say, “they never happened”; instead, God chooses NOT to bring those past sins to the present in order to continually remind and condemn us today. {The English word “re-member” suggests that we take something that is no longer a part of us and re-attach it as a member of who we are still.} Fighting couples often bring the past into the present and use it against each other: “Remember that time ten years ago when you did such-and-such to me?” God will have no such conversations. Neither does God say, “Forget it! We’re done!” Instead God is saying, “I will forgive, and I will not rehash a record of past wrongs.”

Marie de Medici was the Italian-born wife of King Henri IV of France. After her husband’s death, she became queen and served as the steward for their son Louis and guiding Cardinal Richelieu as he gained influence. In her later years, however, she experienced the betrayal of both her son and her protégé. On her deathbed Marie vowed to forgive all of her enemies, including Cardinal Richelieu. “Madam,” asked her attendant, “as a mark of reconciliation, will you send him the bracelet you wear on your arm?” After some consideration, she firmly replied: “No, that would be too much.” True forgiveness is hard to extend because it demands that people let go of something they value — not a piece of jewelry, but pride, perhaps, or a sense of justice, or a desire for revenge.[1]

Forgiveness is costly for human beings, but I believe that it is less costly than unforgiveness. Similarly, God’s promise of forgiveness is costly to God, but it is less costly than unforgiveness. As Christians, we believe God sent God’s only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, as the mark of divine reconciliation. When early Christian writers reflected on this passage from Jeremiah, they saw the fulfillment of God’s promise of forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. In chapter 8 of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the author used this passage from Jeremiah verbatim while identifying Jesus Christ as the bringer of this new covenant that is written in our hearts. God sent Jesus Christ to earth, a vulnerable human being to bridge the gap between God and God’s beloved people. God sent Jesus Christ to us, so that we may truly know God as the powerful One who is faithful in the midst of our faithlessness, as the vulnerable One who forgives even when we have a hard time accepting that divine forgiveness, and as the liberating One who chooses to remember our sins no more so that we’re liberated to do the same for others.

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are reminded of the relentless, persistent, and gracious pursuit of a sovereign God on behalf of God’s wayward people. And today, God speaks these words worth hearing: “You will know me.”

In Christ, you will know me, says our sovereign God, when you allow me to write my law into your hearts so that I will be your God and you can be my people.

In Christ, you will know me, says our merciful God, when you accept my forgiveness which empowers you to forgive and reconcile with others.

In Christ, you will know me, says our gracious God, when you allow me to take away your past hurts and resentments, so that you are freed from having to re-member and carry them around with you today.

You will know me, declares the Lord, for, in Christ, I will forgive your wickedness and will remember your sins no more.  Amen.


[1] Daily Walk, Mary 27, 1992, taken from http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/f/forgiveness.htm.

Words Worth Hearing: Saved by Grace

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 15, 2015
Taken from Ephesians. 2:1-10 (NRS)

Today’s lectionary text is from the book of Ephesians, which was a letter sent to a group of churches along the coast of what’s now western Turkey. In the second chapter of this letter, we hear the classic formulation of the role of grace in the life of the Christian: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Many of us follow the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther in understanding that we are “saved” or we are put back in a right relationship by a gracious God. God, who is rich in mercy and out of God’s great love, saved us from wrath and death through God’s “grace” and not through our “good works.”

I’m sure you’ve heard various illustrations distinguishing between justice, mercy and grace. Several years ago in Farmville, I was driving down a country road heading heading back into town. I was preoccupied and failed to notice the speed limit was reduced to 25 miles per hour.  As I sped toward the stop light on N. Main Street, one of our intrepid Farmville police officers was parked on the other side of the street, and he flipped on his lights and signaled me to turn onto a side parking lot. When he walked over to me, I said: “Hey John, what’s up?”  He replied: “Did you know that you were going 40 miles per hour in a 25 zone?”  “Oh, I’m sorry, John.  I had a lot on my mind and was just rushing to get back to church.”  “Well,” John replied, “I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. However . . . I’ve been meaning to ask you to speak my church’s Saturday morning breakfast. Can you speak next Saturday at 7 am?” (Funny, how I found time to say “yes” and speak!)

My encounter with John is a (flawed) illustration of the difference between justice, mercy and grace.  Justice would have been served if John had given me a ticket, because I definitely broke the law and was speeding that day. Instead of justice, John showed me mercy by letting me go without a citation. But grace? I would have received grace if in addition to letting me go without the ticket, John also shared one of his jelly donuts with me!

I have heard many sermons where grace is understood in the context of breaking the law. Preachers use the illustration of Christians as criminals deserving the death penalty for our sins and transgressions, and there’s nothing we could do to stop the execution, much less secure our freedom. But, the preachers continue, God as the gracious judge decides to remove our death sentence and orders his Son Jesus to die in our place instead. This is one popular theory in evangelical Christian circles that explains how we are “saved by grace.” Some of us are deeply moved by this illustration, but others of us may be troubled that God would sentence His Son to die in order to get us off scot-free. Can there be another way to consider and understand how we are “saved by grace?”

As I said before, our New Testament lesson is a letter to churches in the region surrounding Ephesus. Ephesus itself was one of three largest cities in the Roman Empire and the church there most likely was multi-cultural, consisting mainly of Jewish and Hellenistic backgrounds. In this letter, the author addressed issues that arose from the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds present in the community. Those issues should be easy for us to understand today. As highlighted by our “Seek God for the City” devotion for today, we seek God in our international visitors. With a world-class university right across the street, people from all over the world are in Charlottesville. They are our neighbors, and they bring diversity to our culture, to our cuisine, etc. But with diversity, comes the challenge of unity. One of the main themes of this letter to the Ephesians is for Christ followers of diverse backgrounds to practice Christian unity made possible by the sacrificial death of Christ. It is through this lens of Christian unity that I would like to view and explore our scripture lesson for today.

In the first three verses of chapter two, you’ll find a litany of words like “dead,” “trespasses,” “sin,” “disobedience,” and “wrath.” These words are the consequences of “following the ruler of the power of the air,” enslaved by what the apostle Paul elsewhere calls the “principalities and powers” of the present age. They were the powers that fought against the purposes of God, and they are still fighting against the purposes of God. There are powers that work to enslave us, powers that drain the life out of us, powers that make us wrathful, angry and agitated. During the season of Lent, these words remind us of our brokenness, our mortality, our sin, and our failures.

Thankfully, these are not the last words. In the following verses, there is a radical shift of images, from “dead through our trespasses,” to “made us alive together with Christ” (v.5); from following the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (v.2), to being “raised up and seated in the heavenly realms” (v. 6); from “being children of wrath” (v.3) to receiving “God’s great love and mercy (v. 4) and kindness” (v. 7).

These shifts are made possible in the life of the believer through the grace of God through faith or trust in the work of Christ, and not in our work. We are not strong or powerful enough to defeat these powers. But Christ is plenty strong enough. Ironically, however, his strength was displayed in the weakness and death on the cross. When Christ died on the cross, we believe that He “saved” or “rescued” us from the “principalities and powers” that seek to destroy us today. In other words, for those in Christ, God moves us from “death” to “life” through the vehicle of God’s grace.

Understood in this way, grace is not about a transaction. Grace is not just a transaction between God and Christ that commutes the death sentence for human beings. Grace isn’t just about a free gift … of a jelly donut or even eternal life. Instead, grace is about the transformation of human beings through the beautiful movement of God that rescues us from a deadly existence marked by sin, disobedience, anger and bondage into a new way of life. God didn’t save us by grace so that we can enjoy a spiritual version of lounging in a swimming pool sipping umbrella drinks. We are saved by grace, so that we can truly be what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. In other words, we are saved by grace so that we can be gracious to one another, accepting each other in our weakness.

John Perkins, the life-long advocate of civil rights, once wrote: “I think Paul used the word grace as the all-encompassing word to describe the new kind and quality of relationship that Jesus makes possible. … That’s the incredible thing about grace. God doesn’t only save us; [God] also works through us—redeemed sinners—to redeem the world. Even more incredible is that fact that God is sovereign and doesn’t need us at all. But [God] chooses to work with us, to work through us. I don’t know if we really understand grace until we grasp this idea that God chooses to need broken people like us in his plan to redeem the world.”[2]

I’ve been deeply challenged by Christian counselor, Dan Allender, who, in his book Leading with a Limp, reminds me that true success involves failure, brokenness, and humility, and how God calls us to brokenness, not performance; to relationships, not commotion; to grace, not success.[3] I’ve also been deeply challenged by Brené Brown, who in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, talks about the destructive power of wanting to look perfect and lead perfect lives so that we no longer feel inadequate. And so I’ve been praying about what that might look like in my life, because it is hard to admit that I’m imperfect, broken and in need of grace.

You know what they say, be careful what you pray for! Months ago, when I was planning out my sermons for Lent, I decided to do a sermon series based on the notion that Lent is a time for listening, just as Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness listening to God before he began his ministry. Little did I know that God was preparing me to do some listening of my own – listening to how I have hurt church members whom I deeply love by the things that I’ve said or not said, how I’ve fractured some relationships in the things that I’ve done or not done. As I’ve listened, I’ve come to realize that there was truth in what I was hearing. And even as this letter to the Ephesians instructs us to practice Christian unity, I regretfully know that I have been the cause of some disunity. And yet, even as I acknowledge all this, I’m not sure how I can fix all this. But I am sure that I can continue to listen prayerfully, to try to understand the diverse opinions and perspectives in the congregation, while at the same time be aware that none of us can be all things to all people.

This morning, it is good for me to be reminded of these words worth hearing: “Saved by grace. Michael, you are saved by grace, not by works.” These words cannot be a cop-out, a shrugging of my shoulders to avoid the hard responsibilities of leading as your Senior Minister. But I stand before you today, first and foremost, to confess that I am a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace. In the coming days, I ask for you to pray that in God’s grace, God will save me from my addiction to perfectionism and performance. That God will save me from needing to defend myself when others criticize me. That God will save me not from hurt but from my own pride. That God will save me not from critics, but from my own willfulness and rigidity. That God will save me not from humiliation but from resentment, not from failure but from fatalism.

I also ask that in God’s grace, God will save me for leading with courage. That God will save me for displaying gratitude in the midst of challenges, for being willing to learn in the midst of my failures, and to be filled with a sense of hope in the midst of weariness. I pray that I will lead in such a way that requires more of God’s grace than my own competence. I pray these things because in the final analysis, the leader of University Baptist, and any other church, is not its imperfect Senior Minister. The leader is Jesus, our perfect Savior. I am only the under shepherd pointing people to the Good Shepherd, so that they will follow Jesus, and not me. We are the sheep of God’s pasture, and ultimately, the only voice we need to recognize and the only Word we need to hear is our Lord’s.

Lent is for listening, and how I need to hear (and believe) are these gospel words: Saved by Grace. These words are like refreshing water that quench my parched lips and slakes my thirsty soul. These life-giving words give me hope, they embrace me with love, they fill me with joy. May I be saved by the loving embrace of grace so that I may live into a new way of life that is grace-filled . . . toward myself and others.

Where are the places in your life in which words like “dead,” “trespasses,” “sin,” “disobedience,” and “wrath” still have a death grip over you? Now hear these words: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”

May you hear and believe these words. And may the grace of God that is greater than our sin be with you, so that it becomes our way of life.  Amen.

[2] Charles Marsh and John Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, pp. 81-82.

[3] Dan Allender, Leading With a Limp, p. 52.

Words Worth Hearing: The Ten Words

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 8, 2015
Taken from Exodus 20:1-17 NIV

Our assigned lectionary text from the Old Testament this morning is described as the “Ten Commandments,” most often understood as ten laws given by God that everyone in society ought to follow. There is controversy over the Ten Commandments these days. Some see all the ills of our modern society and lament the fact that fewer and fewer people today know and obey these commandments. Others see the Ten Commandments as an outdated vestige of a legalistic religion given by a kill-joy “god” who says, “Uh, uh, uh . . . you’d better NOT do that” eight out of the ten times. Still others may wonder what the relationship of these laws given to Moses versus the notion of grace taught by Jesus. How can we understand these verses and their role in our lives as Christians?

There’s no way that I can deeply address this question in the span of one sermon. But let me try to offer one perspective for your consideration this morning.  First of all, in Judaism, these verses are technically not understood as commandments. Verse 1 says, “And God spoke all these words.” In Biblical Hebrew, these verses from Exodus 20 are called Asereth ha-D’varîm, which is translated literally as the “ten words” or “ten sayings.” In the Greek version of the Bible, these verses are called the “Decalogue,” which literally means, “the ten words,” derived from “deca”- ten, and “logos” – word. In Judaism, these words are not understood as individual commandments; rather they are understood as ten categories or classifications of the 613 commandments or mitzvot scattered throughout the Torah or the first five books of the Bible.

Secondly, in general society and even among some Christians, because we read these verses mainly as commandments or as laws, there is a temptation to interpret these ten words legalistically as burdensome and guilt inducing, in opposition to the grace we find in Christ. However, that’s not at all how Jews read and understand these verses. Indeed, for Jews, the first word or “command” is not “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.”  The first word is simply: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The first word is not, “I am God and you’d better not worship other gods!” No. The first word is “I am the Lord, YAHWEH, your God, and I freed you from slavery in Egypt!” What an amazing, gracious first word that is!

We Protestant Christians tend to skip over God’s prior word of freedom in order to jump right into the “thou shalt nots.” No wonder some people think these words are legalistic! The reality is that these ten words and the commandments of God presuppose a loving relationship, a relationship in which God made the first move in freeing God’s people from captivity so that they could live as a freed people. When seen from this perspective, the rest of the words take on a very different feel. Instead of being restrictive, they become guardians of true freedom.

When I attended freshman orientation at Rice University, we were all welcomed as the new entering class, and they impressed upon us what a privilege it was to be selected. Then we learned about the academic honor code. We memorized this statement and wrote it on every exam: “I have neither given nor receive any aid on this exam.” Obeying this code did not get us accepted into Rice; we were already students, already bonafide Owls. This code did not apply to University of Houston students, it applied to Rice students. This code formed us into the kind of people we were going to be for the next four years. It formed the kind of academic community we were going to be at Rice. Instead of seeing the academic honor code as restrictive, it became a source of pride for us. It fostered trust among students and professors, and gave us the freedom to take our exams in our dorm rooms or in the library, and not worry about others cheating.

In another example, when we got married, Beth and I exchanged a series of words during the wedding ceremony. In those words, we vowed or promised each other that we would forsake all others, that we would be faithful to each other for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part. Beth and I did not see these vows as restrictive – all jokes about balls and chains aside. No, I had freely wooed her and she freely said “yes.” We were eager and happy to publicly proclaim these vows because they represented who we wanted to be as a couple. These vows were not rules that covered all situations. They represented general categories and boundaries that we were not going to cross, and they gave us freedom to live our lives together with love, faith, and trust.

The honor code and marriage vows represent covenants, sacred agreements based on a prior relationship that extend into the future. Covenants bind two parties and form them into a unique community. The same is true of these ten words given to Moses at Mount Sinai. As Craig Kocher explained: “The [Ten Commandments] should not be read as divine finger-wagging or moral hand-slapping. To be bound in covenant with God is to be set free to live as God’s people. God’s gift of the law to Israel is a means of protecting the community, now that they are no longer slaves, and opening a path to the flourishing of life, both communal and individual.”[1]

The word “freedom” has a nice ring to it, but it is a challenge to live it out. The Israelites struggled with freedom. Some wanted to go back to Egypt and live as slaves. Better to return to a life of the known, no matter how miserable, than venture out to a life of the unknown. That’s why God continued to speak more words. In the first tablet of the Ten Commandments, we hear words that instruct us to love God with our whole selves. It also acknowledges that other gods and other slave masters abound … not just in Egypt, but in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai and in twenty-first century America. Therefore, “do not have other gods before me.”

For you see, people are always looking for a master or a god to serve, and it is tempting to serve a man-made symbol of success rather than an unseen, mysterious God. Therefore, the question is not “How can we be free from any Master?” The question is “Since we will always serve a master, which Master is worthy of our service?” Anything that is an image of a created thing is idolatrous and not worthy of your service, whether that is a golden calf, or any other human-made symbol of success, wealth, and power.

Idolatry is sneaky, and it works its way into our lives in other ways. One way is how we misuse the name of God. In ancient cultures, there’s a popular belief that to know the name of a deity is to know the secret of that deity’s character and power. In other words, to know the name of a god is to have power over that god. But at the burning bush, when Moses asked for the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac, the reply was Yahweh, a form of the verb “to be,” which means something like: “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” God is here saying something akin to “My name is above all names; I am present to you beyond all names. Do not try to objectify me.” In other words, God is a presence that cannot be controlled. God cannot be reduced to intellectual affirmations or experiential moments. God cannot be co-opted to side with any political ideology or nationality. God is wild and any attempt to use God’s name to put God in a box of any kind is idolatrous and, I might add, useless and “in vain.” This commandment is God’s word declaring God’s own freedom from all human attempts to domesticate the “I AM.”

Another way idolatry creeps into our lives is when we give our work or occupation ultimate significance and meaning.  God says: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” We make this word legalistic by focusing on which actions constitute the breaking of the Sabbath. God instead was making sure that the Israelites stayed free. For you see, slaves don’t get Sabbath rest. Slaves work all the time. Sabbath observance is the most powerful and subversive way for God’s people to declare that we are not slaves to our bosses, to productivity, and to the global market economy. Remembering the Sabbath is a word that frees us from being enslaved to human work.

God then says “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” I believe God included this word because honoring our parents is the training ground in which we learn to love and honor God. No parents are perfect, but most parents try to give unconditional love and to raise their children right. Years ago, Keith Smith, former Senior Minister here at UBC, gave a sermon illustration that has stayed with me. He recalled the time when he was leaving as a freshman to Clemson University. As he left the house, the last words from his mother were these ten words: “Keith, remember who you are, and how we raised you.” Keith’s mom was basically saying, “Keith, we love you. As you leave this household and go out on your own, don’t forsake the values that we tried to instill in you. Remember that you’re a Smith, so live accordingly.”

In addition, the Fifth Commandment also transitions us from our vertical relationship to God to our horizontal relationships to other human beings as we get to the second half of the Ten Commandments.  In our public debates about the role of the Ten Commandments in society, we often emphasize this second half, but if we look at the text, we’ll easily see that—at least based on the number of verses and words used—the emphasis is on the first half of the Ten Commandments. I think that’s because once we have our relationship to God right, once we live in the freedom afforded by God, then everything else will fall into place. So, I will only briefly discuss the last five commandments or words.

The word prohibiting murder instructs us that human beings are made in God’s image, and that God is trying to free us from the slave masters of violence, vengeance, and hatred that compels us to unlawfully take the life of another human being.

The word prohibiting adultery instructs us that God is trying to free us from the slave masters of unbridled lust, and even the idol of romance. In the marriage vows that we make, we promise that we will be a faithful people, to God and to our spouse.

The word prohibiting theft instructs us that God is trying to free us from the slave masters of materialism. When we are content with what God has given to us, we do not need to take shortcuts to obtain more at the expense of others.

The word prohibiting bearing false testimony instructs us that God is trying to free us from the enslavement of our lies and falsehoods. Why do we lie? Sometimes it is a malicious attempt to hurt others. But many times, I know that I’ve lied so that I wouldn’t lose face over something I had done. In that case, I’ve made human approval or my reputation more important than the righteousness I have in Christ. This is a word that frees us to acknowledge the truth in love.

Let’s build up a community by speaking truthfully of our neighbors.

Finally, the word prohibiting covetousness reminds us that God is trying to free us from the insidious practice of comparing ourselves to our neighbors. Our worth is often measured by keeping up with the Joneses. But unfortunately, even if we surpass the Joneses, there are always the Johnsons, the Smiths, the Gates and the Buffetts to catch. We can’t win the comparison game, and it’s a horrible way to live. Thankfully, this word frees us from all that.

During this Lenten season, these are ten words worth hearing. These ten words are not simply a legalistic litany of “thou shalt nots,” nor are they the trivial and irrelevant rules dictated by a kill-joy God. They are God’s ten freeing words that show us the way to abundant life and healthy relationships—with God, with oneself, and with one another. Of course, history has clearly shown that neither the Israelites nor we are capable of perfectly obeying these ten words from God.  Over and over, we have chosen bondage instead of true freedom.  That’s the bad news. The Good News is that we can know God through Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the Savior who can free us from our idolatries.  Jesus is the one who summarized all the 613 commands into two: love God and love neighbor. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of God’s law.  The Good News is that first and foremost, before we do the Ten Commandments, God wants us to remember that we are a people for whom Christ has freed from our slavery to sin, so that we are now freed to love God and love one another.

Lent is a time for listening. I close this sermon with these ten words worth hearing: “In Christ, you are freed to love God and others.” Amen.

[1] Craig Kocher, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, Third Sunday in Lent.

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