Be Doers of the Word

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 30, 2015
Taken from James 1:17-27

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Today, I begin a sermon series taken from the book of James, a brief letter found toward the end of the New Testament.  As I studied this book in preparing to preach it, I’ve found that many people either love or hate the book.  People love the book because it is so straightforward and practical.  Its main focus is on what it means to live an authentic Christian life, and James, in a very simple, rapid-fire, shot-gun way, makes pronouncements on a lot of topics.  Other people hate it—well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word—other people are not that fond of it because they think this book teaches a salvation by works, instead of by faith. For some, it is too simplistic, too scattered, and too preachy. Let’s face it, you’re reading James, and you get to verses like: “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (v. 19), “get rid of all moral filth and evil” (v. 21), and “look after orphans and widows” (v.27), it all begins to sound like your mother nagging you to “pick up your socks,” “brush your teeth before going to bed,” and “eat your vegetables before you can have dessert.” And you just want to say, “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Momma don’t preach!” Granted, who would disagree with the wisdom that James is teaching?  But do we have to hear it again?

I heard a story about an old preacher who preached a wonderful sermon one Sunday, and everyone in the congregation really loved it. The next Sunday, he preached the very same sermon again, and while the congregation thought that was a little strange, they didn’t think too much about it. But the following Sunday, that preacher preached the exact same sermon for the third time. This time, as one of the ladies of the church was making her way out of the church and shaking the minister’s hand, she just had to ask the minister: “Why have you preached the same sermon three weeks in a row?” To which the minister replied: “Well, ma’am, when you all start doing what I’m preaching, then I’ll move on to the next topic!”

Ahh, now there’s the rub. We hear and know what James is teaching us. We probably agree with the wisdom dispensed. But hearing and knowing and agreeing with what James is saying is not the problem. The problem is actually doing what James is telling us. The challenge is found in verse 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

So how do we become “Doers of the Word?”

According to James, we become doers of the Word when we first embrace the generosity of God. We are reminded that “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from God.” God generously gave us the universe when God, as the “Father of lights,” spoke at the beginning of time: “Let there be light.” God is also generously faithful to us.  Like the hymn says: “Great is thy faithfulness O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee.” God’s generous gift of divine faithfulness is not variable; it doesn’t turn or change. Furthermore, God created us and gave us a new birth, the generous gift of salvation, through God’s word. This salvation we have experienced is the “first-fruits” or the foretaste of the salvation of all of God’s creatures. Let’s name our blessings: our universe, our lives, our salvation, our family and friends, our church family, our material possessions, our physical and intellectual capabilities, etc. Truly, we are the recipients of every good and perfect gift from God! We become doers of the Word when we first embrace the generosity of God, because God is the source of who we are and the resource of what we do.

Second, we become doers of the Word when we embody a generosity of Spirit. One way to embody a generosity of Spirit is by listening. We can’t be doers of God’s word when we haven’t listened to what it says we ought to do. As a Type A personality, I often find myself just jumping into doing without first praying and listening for an answer to this question: “God, what is it that you’re calling me to do?” I find that I’m much more like Martha busy and frantic at doing many things, when the only thing that is needed is to be like Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet to listen to him.

It takes a generosity of spirit not just to listen to God, but to listen to others. James tells us to be quick to listen and to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. How many times have we let our emotions to get ahead of us, and we stop listening to others? How many times have we not listened but instead assumed we knew what the problem was, and therefore, we applied the wrong solution?

A Baptist evangelist arrived in town for a healing revival service. During the healing service, a man comes forward and says, “Preacher, I’m concerned about my hearing.”
The evangelist says, “You say you’re worried about your hearing, brother?”
“Yes,” says the man, “I’m very concerned about my hearing.”
The evangelist suddenly slaps the man on the forehead and yells, “Be healed, brother!”
The man is stunned and falls backward.
The evangelist says, “Rise, brother! Tell me, how is your hearing?”
The man, still a bit stunned, answers, “I don’t know, Preacher. My hearing in court is next week.”

Many times, in our haste to do something and “help” in a situation, we don’t take the time to actually hear and listen in order to understand what the problem from another person’s point of view. It takes a generosity of spirit to take the posture of a learner and to listen before we speak.

In order to become a doer of the Word, we are called to embrace the generosity of God and to embody a generosity of spirit. Listening is crucial, but just listening is not enough. It must be followed by action. Therefore, we become doers of the Word when we exhibit a generosity of service. In verse 27, James writes: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Here, James challenges us to put our faith into action.

The word “religion” in verse 27 is actually the word for “religious worship.” James is saying that the pure and faultless worship of God manifests itself when we care for the powerless and dispossessed in our midst, and when we live an upright life. Many churches today fight about what is acceptable worship to God. Methodist Bishop Will Willimon once said: “Sometimes I have heard people say of church on Sunday morning, ‘I think of church as a filling station. I come here empty, and during the service I get filled so I can make it through the week.’ See? Passive, receptive, not active.”  Willimon continues: “It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, ‘OK preacher, choir, organist, what have you got for me today?  Fill me up.’ No. The test for good worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. Yet here, as elsewhere,” concludes Willimon, “after all is said and done, more is said than done.”[1]

On Sunday mornings, we receive God’s generous gifts of beautiful music, lovely singing, warm fellowship, scripture reading and preaching. It would be a shame to then walk out those doors and act like nothing had happened, and go back to our old lives unchallenged and unchanged.  To do that would be like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and, after looking at himself and noticing that his hair is all messed up, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—without pulling out a comb to fix his hair. But James is exhorting us to be like the person who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and instead of looking and forgetting, the law is put into action. It’s not just what you know, it’s also about doing what you know. This generosity of service on our part reflects our belief that every perfect gift comes from God.

As children, we sang a song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock, while the foolish man built his house upon the sand, based on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:24-27. What’s the difference between the two? Jesus says that the wise builder “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice,” while the foolish builder hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice. Both hear the words of Jesus. The only difference is that one puts them into practice and the other doesn’t.

During the past several weeks, the staff and I have had conversations with our church leaders to discover and discern ways that University Baptist can better put our faith into action. This coming week, a letter will be mailed or emailed to our members and regular attenders, and it will contain five questions for us to answer prayerfully. Some questions will ask us to embrace the generosity of God’s good and perfect gifts in celebrating the positive things that are going on at UBC. Other questions will require us to embody a generosity of spirit as we listen carefully to things we identify as challenges, problems, and priorities. Your frank and honest answers will be strictly confidential, and they will be printed out verbatim in time for our UBC Leadership Retreat on October 3. At the retreat, members of church council, deacons, and ministerial staff will listen both to the Word of God and to the words of our respondents to identity, prioritize, and implement action plans to put our faith into action so that we as a church may exhibit a generosity of service in the name of Christ to our neighborhood, our community and our world. Please be in prayer as we seek God’s direction for University Baptist Church.

Finally, I want to share a story of faith in action that happened just this morning. How many of you drove to church last Sunday, and saw the sea of red and blue plastic cups all along 14th and Wertland Streets? Every fall, right after move-in, parties take place all along those streets, and the cups and litter are a constant presence. Just as the first robin signals spring, the first red solo cup signals, “The students are back!” The trash is certainly ugly and I must confess that I shake my head in disbelief and disgust every time I see the rivers of trash left over from a long night of partying by students.

Two Fridays ago, I visited the manager of the apartments behind our parking lot and asked her when the “Wertland parties” were taking place. She replied “tomorrow night,” and the tense look on her face betrayed her anxiety as she prepared to get an earful from me. Was I there to complain in advance about students trashing our parking lot? Before I could respond, she quickly added, “but we’ve got our staff ready to clean up, and we’ve told our tenants not to throw stuff off their balconies onto your parking lot.” I thanked her for her concern about our property, but said that wasn’t the reason why I was there.  “I just wanted to tell you that a group from our church is planning to help pick up trash along the street next Sunday morning.” Her face softened visibly and she replied, “Oh, that’s so nice of you! Thank you!” I replied, “We just want to be good neighbors.” And that’s just what happened this morning – our youth and some of their parents went out earlier today along Wertland and 14th—and they were good neighbors.

Be doers of the Word. God’s Word calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the past several months, Will Brown and I listened to the concerns of UVA’s administration about the parties on Wertland St. Instead of speaking out in anger against drunken students trashing our neighborhood, I’ve been praying, “God, how can we address this problem in a way that showcases your grace?” God has generously blessed us with a wonderful youth group, and this morning, we tried one idea by empowering our youth group to love our neighbors. It’s a small thing. It’s not meant as an act of judgment. It’s not going to stop the problem. It’s just one small way, on this particular Sunday, to put faith in action, here in our neighborhood.

How will you put your faith in action this week? How might you embrace the generosity of God and offer the resources you have back to God? How might you embody a generosity of spirit to actively and carefully listen to God and to others? How might you then exhibit a generosity of service as a witness to the grace of God?  May God bless and empower us to be doers of the Word.

Amen.

 

[1] William Willimon, “Doers of the Word.”  http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=46

Be Strong in the Lord

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 23, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 6:10-20

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During the past five weeks, we have been exploring the book of Ephesians in our morning worship. This letter emphasizes how in Christ, God has broken down walls that separate us to unite us even in the midst of our diversity and differences. It reminds us of the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love and power at work within us to accomplish more than we can imagine. Therefore, we are called to put on Christ, to be imitators of God, as God’s beloved children, and to live in love, in the same way that Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

Today, we come to the end of the letter, and in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, we are given a reality check. For Christians to live in unity while acknowledging our diversity, to live imitating God and putting on Christ, to live with love in our hearts and spiritual songs on our lips… to do all these things can be difficult. There are forces and powers out in the world and within ourselves that are constantly waging war against us to discourage and defeat us. In the midst of this struggle, we hear these words: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

How do we define strength in the world today? Oftentimes, we think of strength as an ability to out-smart, out-gun, out-think, and out-number our rivals, our enemies, and our adversaries. Political candidates tout their strengths and highlight the weaknesses of others. We celebrate companies like Apple and Google, and athletes like the women’s U.S. soccer team and football stars like J.J. Watt. UVA flaunts the SAT scores of their incoming first-years. Every fall we pray that the Cavaliers will beat the Hokies. Parents want their children to excel. We don’t want to be seen as weak. We don’t want to fail. There are so many high achievers here at UVA and in the Charlottesville area that competition is part of the air we breathe. We want to be strong.

But what does it mean to be strong in the Lord and putting on the full armor of God? While there are many battles taking place in our world today – literal battles with guns and tanks, political battles and debates, cultural battles – this passage suggests that the one really important battle is not a battle between “flesh and blood” human beings. Rather it is against forces and powers that we cannot see, but which do serious damage to individuals, families and communities. While the Roman empire was built on its military strength, early Christians were not called to bear arms against any human beings, because their battle was a spiritual one. Therefore this letter uses the common military gear of the Roman soldier and transforms this gear into new Christian metaphors of spiritual warfare.

Twice in this passage, Christians are told to “put on” the full armor of God. The word for “put on” is the same Greek word used earlier in Ephesians 4:24, where Christ followers are put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Putting on the full armor of God is just another way to illustrate what it means to put on Christ, to become a new self, a new creature in Christ. Therefore, the various pieces of armor are first and foremost, characteristics and qualities that Christ offers to believers to incorporate into our lives so that we can be strong in the Lord and stand firm even in the midst of attacks from the forces of evil.

The first piece of armor is the “belt of truth,” which holds the battle tunic together. In Colossians 1:15-17, Christ is described as the image of the invisible God, and “in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” When our world is unraveling and falling apart, we have Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life, who will hold us together as the belt of truth.

The second piece of armor is the “breastplate of righteousness,” which protects our heart and lungs. Romans 5:19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Christ) the many will be made righteous.” When the demonic powers of sin and shame and rejection attack us to break our hearts and puncture our spirits, we have Christ, whose obedience made us righteous in God’s eyes. In the saving work of Christ, we are loved and accepted by God.

When Christ has a hold of our lives and we experience Christ’s righteousness and God’s approval, we experience shalom, a wholeness and a peace that transcends all understanding and all circumstances. We can’t help but share that good news with others. Therefore, our feet will be fitted with the third piece of armor, a readiness not only to “talk the talk,” but to “walk the talk” that comes from the gospel of peace.

The fourth piece of armor is the “shield of faith.” “The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped,” thus sings the psalmist in Psalm 28:7. As far back as Genesis 15, God spoke to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you.” When we don’t know what the future holds, when the flaming arrows of fear are hurtling our way, we can be sheltered behind God’s power and faithfulness because God reassures us, “Do not fear; trust in me. I am a shield to you.”

The fifth piece of armor is the “helmet of salvation.” 1 Thessalonians 5:8 says, “Let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” As Christians, our salvation comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. But the powers of this world are constantly attacking this truth, tempting us to think and believe that our salvation comes also from worldly success. We think we’re doomed if we don’t get into the college of our choice. We think we’re damned if we don’t “make the grade.” We think we’ll face the wrath of our parents or our peers or even ourselves if we fail in one way or another. A recent survey of 150,000 college freshmen nationwide found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year. More than a third “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments. One respondent said that as a high school student, “You have to get good grades, have all sorts of after-school activities that take up tons of hours, and you have to be happy and social — you have to be everything. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to sometimes.”[1] Students, as important as grades and activities are, remember that your salvation comes from Jesus Christ. Put on the helmet of salvation as a protection against the demonic temptation to seek salvation elsewhere.

The final piece of the armor of God is the “sword of the Spirit,” which is the word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Some say that the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon in the armor of God. But I would say that before we use it on our enemies, the word of God should be used on ourselves to judge the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.

When we put on the full armor of God, then we can be strong in the Lord. This strength does not come from ourselves. In fact, one mystery of the gospel is that through our human weakness, the strength of Christ is made most evident. The apostle Paul, when he talked about struggling with the torment of Satan as “a thorn in his flesh,” heard the Lord say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Last Thursday, former President Jimmy Carter told the world that he had cancer in his liver that has spread to his brain. Presidential scholars and everyday Americans can argue about Carter’s years in the White House, but most people agree that no other former President has done more to champion human rights, fight third-world diseases, or build Habitat for Humanity homes than Jimmy Carter. Throughout his press conference, he had a broad smile and an upbeat attitude. At ninety years old, Carter said that he’s had a wonderful life, and that he was feels “perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”  Despite this news, he continues to focus on others – he’s still hoping to travel to Nepal with Habitat this fall, and he talked about the Carter Center’s work in eradicating the parasitical guinea worm from Africa. In fact, he joked, “I’d like for the last guinea worm to die before I do.” Closer to home, even though he received his first treatment on Thursday, he is planning to teach Sunday School at his Baptist church this morning, just as he’s done for decades. By some standards, President Carter’s cancer diagnosis puts him in a position of weakness; but to me, he’s a living example of a Christian who is strong in the Lord.

Many of you here know Millie Fitzgerald, who passed away earlier this week.  Millie was a long-time member of UBC and a long-standing member of our sanctuary choir. For several years now, Millie suffered from various physical maladies, but despite the weakness of her failing body, she was strong in the Lord. Nine days ago, Millie contracted pneumonia and decided to forego treatment. Last Monday night, after our Deacon’s meeting, Ed Lowry suggested that a group of us walk across the street to visit Millie at UVA hospital. About eleven of us went to her room and found her asleep on her bed, laboring for breath, with no signs of recognition that we were there. For twenty minutes, we sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to Millie, with her daughters and other family members present. We left the room at around 8:45 p.m., and early the next morning, Millie’s daughter Amy emailed Ed Lowry: “Mom departed this life a little past one this morning. Betsy and I were with her, holding her hands as she took her last breath. It was very peaceful, and remarkable in that we knew it was happening. I have no doubt that the hymns helped to usher her on to a better place. I’ve never felt such overwhelming love in one place.”

In my conversations with Millie, she often felt useless and wondered why God still had her here. In all those conversations, I didn’t have an answer for her. But on that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if God kept her here so that Millie could give us one, final parting gift: the gift of the overwhelming love, grace, peace, and power of God, made perfect in her weakness.

Jimmy Carter, Millie Fitzgerald, and others you may know who are strong in the Lord are reminders to us that at the end of the day, at the end of our days, the most important things in life are not our GPA’s, our SAT scores, the number of letters behind our names, the number of digits on our paychecks. The most important thing is whether we have put on Christ, who is our spiritual armor, so that when the day of evil comes, we may be strong in the Lord and stand firm.

Amen.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/us/more-college-freshmen-report-having-felt-depressed.html?_r=0

“Dressing for the Part”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 9, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 4:22 – 5:2

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How many of you, when you were children, liked to play dress up?  I love watching my children play dress up.  I loved watching Thea put on her princess costume, because when she did that, all of a sudden, she was a princess, with aristocratic mannerisms, and a stately royal walk. In fact, there are some in this conversation who hardly remember seeing Thea when she wasn’t dressed up like this! Wesley had a wide array of dress-ups, too – athletic costumes, firefighters, Peter Pan, and more.  Eventually, his grandmother made him a variety of Star Wars costumes, from Han Solo to Darth Vader.  When Wesley dressed up in all black and put on his Darth Vader mask, all of a sudden he was a Sith Lord, embodying as much ominous presence, ponderous steps and heavy breathing that his six-year-old frame could muster.  And there’s just something about a 3-and-1/2-foot-tall Darth Vader walking up to me and solemnly declaring: “Luke, I’m your father!”

But playing dress-up is not limited to children.  As we grow up, I think most of us like to play dress up, too.  Think about your high school prom.  Think about the amount of time you spent finding the right suit, dress, jeans, or swimming suit.  Think about a wedding – now there’s even a slew of shows on TV that capture the moments of shopping, trying on dresses, making alterations, finding the right veil, etc. so that the bride can say “Yes to the Dress.” We might think shows like this can be excessive, but it shows that the brides – and the viewers – think it’s important to dress the part.  Setting aside weddings, think about our work world – company uniforms, lab coats, construction gear, coats and tie.  In this church, there’s a tradition of ordained ministers wearing robes in worship. The very act of dressing the part makes us a difference in fulfilling our jobs more appropriately. But when we come home after a busy workday, what’s the first thing we often do?  We change clothes, because sometimes the very act of trading your work clothes for jeans and a t-shirt can help the stress slip away.

It’s amazing the transformation that can occur when we put on new clothes.  Sometimes, it makes us behave differently, speak differently, even think differently.  Many times, we put on a new attitude befitting the clothes.  And that’s the picture from today’s lesson in Ephesians, which continues to teach us about what it means to be mature members of the one body of Christ.  Remember, the first three chapters of Ephesians described God’s amazing and costly reconciling work of bringing everything and everyone together in unity.  Last Sunday, chapter four taught us that we have an important role to play in maintaining that unity, all the while acknowledging the diversity of gifts within the members of the one body of Christ.  Today, we get to the nitty-gritty in terms of what it means for Jesus’ followers to grow up in maturity to be fully alive like Christ.

Today’s text states: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,  23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  The dominant imagery in these verses is the image of someone putting off old clothes and putting on new ones.  It says: Put off your former way of life, your old self, and as you are doing so, put off old behaviors and attitudes.

First of all, when we put off our old self, we put off old ways of speaking—like falsehood and slander.  We are in the same family now, we are part of the same body, so let’s not lie to one another, let’s not smear another person’s reputation, let no evil talk come out of our mouths (vs. 29).

Secondly, when we put off our old self, we put off old ways of behaving—like letting anger fester in us so that it becomes destructiveLike taking things that are not ours.  Christians are expected to work honestly,[1] not solely for one’s benefit, but rather to help the needy.

Thirdly, when we put off our old selves, we put off old attitudes—like bitterness and wrath and wrangling, together with all malice (vs. 30-31).

We are called to put off those old behaviors and attitudes because it grieves the Holy Spirit.  Parents of children often grieve seeing their children fight and wrangle with each other.  But when we see our children playing nicely with one another, sharing, and encouraging one another, it warms our hearts.  I think that’s the way it is also with God.  How sad it is for God’s Spirit that dwells within God’s children to witness the bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander among us.

But it is not enough to just put off the old self, we must put on or clothe ourselves with the new self, modeled after the image of God.  Going back to the idea that when we come home from work, we often change clothes, it’s the same principle here.  Sure, when we get home from work, we might want to ditch our work clothes and stiff shoes.  But none of you just take off the old clothes, right?  Let me put it this way, if you’re coming home and walking around the house naked or in your undies, I don’t want to know about it.  Too much information!  No, we take off the old, work clothes, and we put on the new, comfy clothes.  This passage tells us not only to set aside the old self, but to clothe ourselves with God’s goodness, to put on the new self.  The Greek word used here for “put on” is the same word used in Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Ephesians tells us that as we are adopted into the one family of God, as we are members of the one body of Christ, we now need to dress the part—we need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.  And in doing so, we put on new behaviors and attitudes, the exact opposite of the old attitudes that we set aside.

First of all, when we put on Christ, we will put on new ways of speaking.  Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  But we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and we speak only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.

Secondly, when we put on Christ, we will put on new ways of behaving.  We should labor and work honestly, so that we’ll have something to share with the needy (vs. 28).  And be kind to one another (vs. 32).

Thirdly, when we put on Christ, we will put on new attitudes.  Be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Members of the family of God are to be compassionate and forgiving to one another, because it is only through the compassion and forgiveness of God in Christ that we became members of God’s family in the first place.

“Therefore,” the letter concludes: “be imitators of God.”  In 1992, Gatorade came out with a hugely successful commercial called “Be Like Mike.”  It took advantage of the fact that a whole generation idolized the Chicago Bulls basketball great Michael Jordan.  Thousands of Americans wore his number 23 Bulls uniform jerseys; thousands more donned his Nike Air Jordans.  We studied his moves, and even though we did not have his hang time, we hung out our tongues while we attempted to dunk the basketball.  And of course, we drank Gatorade, because we wanted to imitate Michael Jordan.  We wanted to be like Mike.

As followers of Jesus, we are called not to be like Mike, but to be like Christ, not to imitate Jordan, but to imitate God.  Of course, imitation of God, strictly speaking, is impossible because of the unbridgeable gulf between us and God.  Nevertheless, Christians are called to emulate God as children who are the recipients of God’s love.  We are called to imitate the God of love, the God who is love, by living in love.

One caution: dressing the part is not about the “outer clothes” (suit or robe) but our behavior and attitudes. Living in love by putting on Christ is not playing “dress up” on Sundays, and then going back to their old clothes and old selves the rest of the week.  Christ is not a costume we dust off and put on once a week or for special occasions.  Putting on Christ is putting on who we were created to be, who we were meant to be, and it is a life-long journey. One way to measure the progress of our Christian maturity is by asking ourselves, “How have we been more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and kind during this year than last year?” “How have our words been more grace-filled and less critical lately than they were a decade ago?” “How have we been less enslaved by our fears, our anxieties, and our bad habits this year than last?”

The good news is that not only God’s Spirit abides in us to help us grow toward Christ-likeness, but God also places persons in our lives to walk alongside us as role models and fellow pilgrims in our spiritual journeys. They may be our parents, our peers, or a mentor. One group in the church that may help us in our spiritual journeys is our deacons. Here at University Baptist, our deacons do not function as a governing board telling the ministerial staff and other members what to do. Rather, they represent those entrusted by the congregation to exhibit servant leadership, to be a spiritual compass, and to model Christian character in their attitude, their behavior and their speech. In the New Testament, the word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakoneo, which literally means “through the dirt.”  It refers to an attendant, a waiter, or one who ministers to another. We first see deacons in Acts 6 when the twelve apostles enlisted other disciples to serve as deacons, to minister to the church’s physical needs like waiting on tables during church meals, while the apostles ministered to their spiritual needs through preaching and teaching.

Here at UBC, our deacons don’t just take up the offering and serve communion during worship. Our deacons main function is to lead in organizing our Circle of Caring teams. We have a Congregational Care team that seeks to regularly check in on members. We have a Comfort Food team that brings food to those who may need a meal in the midst of a family illness or tragedy. Our Homebound team visits those in our congregation who are not as mobile as they used to be. Our Small Jobs team helps those who need a help hand in simple household tasks like changing light bulbs, replacing batteries in smoke alarms, and even some home repairs. Our Bereavement team provides comfort and support to those who have recently lost a loved one.  Our Transportation team provides rides for students and others on Sunday mornings and emergency situations. Our Hospital Visitation team ministers to those who have been hospitalized and their families. And our Celebrations team remembers the birthdays, anniversaries and other high points in our members’ lives.

This morning, we are blessed to have a group of individuals set apart by the church to serve as deacons. But while they may have a specific part to play in the life of UBC, all of us are called to put off our old selves and to clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Many years ago, an evangelist by the name of Jakov arrived at a village in Serbia. He met an elderly man there named Cimmerman, and Jakov began to talk to him of the love of Christ. Cimmerman abruptly interrupted Jakov and told him that he wished to have nothing to do with Christianity. He reminded Jakov of the dreadful history of the church in his town, where church leaders had plundered, exploited, and killed innocent people.

“My own nephew was killed by them,” he said, and continued: “They wear those elaborate coats and crosses, but I cannot ignore their evil.”

Jakov replied, “Cimmerman, suppose I were to steal your coat, put it on, and break into a bank. Let’s say that the police saw me from a distance. They could not see my face but they clearly saw your coat. What would you say if they accused you of breaking into the bank?”

“I would deny it,” said Cimmerman.

And Jakov countered, “‘Ah, but we saw your coat,’ they would say.”

The analogy annoyed Cimmerman, and he ordered Jakov to leave.

Even so, Jakov continued to return to the village periodically just to befriend Cimmerman, encourage him, and share the love of Christ with him. Finally one day Cimmerman declared that he wanted to be a Christian. After praying with Jakov, Cimmerman rose to his feet and hugged his longtime friend.  He said, “Thank you for being in my life. You wear God’s coat very well.”[2]

May we all dress the part, and clothe ourselves with Christ this coming week. Amen.

 

 

[1] Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Cor 4:12; 1 Thess 2:9; 4:11.

[2] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? From a sermon by C. Philip Green, cited in http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-sermon-central-staff-stories-christianwitness-77346.asp.

Gifts for the One Body

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 2, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 4:1-16

body-of-christ_webThe human body is an amazing organism. I don’t think you have to be a biology major or a medical doctor to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the human body and its functioning. Each organ has its unique function and in order for the body to be fully healthy, every part of the body must do what it is designed to do. Did you know that:

  • By the time you turn 70, your heart will have beaten some two-and-a-half billion times?[1]
  • It takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown?[2]
  • Human thighbones are stronger than concrete?
  • Your body uses 300 muscles to balance itself when you are standing still?[3]

Each member of the human body is different in its function, but each is needed for the full vitality and health of the organism as a whole. Perhaps that’s why the metaphor of the human body is used so many times in the Bible to describe God’s people, the Church. In our Epistle lesson this morning, the image of the body is used again to describe our life together as Christians. This passage highlights three characteristics of a healthy Christian body or community. We are called to maintain unity, acknowledge diversity, and strive for maturity.

The first quality of a healthy Christian body is the ability to maintain unity. Verse 3 states, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” It sounds great to maintain unity, but it is harder than it seems. We’ve all heard of people with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, or lupus, where the body begins to attack itself. Those are terrible diseases, and it is just as bad when a family, church, or group attacks itself through bickering and in-fighting. Many times, these attacks take place when the body loses sight of its mission and gets distracted by little things. The members fight about insignificant matters. That’s why the chapter opens: “I’m begging you all to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

Do you know what your life calling is? Is it just to be successful in life, and to make a lot of money? Or is there a higher calling that God is calling you to that is bigger than your life? Do you as a family know what God has called you all to be? Is it just to make other family members happy? Or is there a higher calling to look beyond your family and its comfort? Do we as a church know our unique calling? Is it just to serve our own members? Or is there a higher calling that looks beyond our walls to be the presence of Christ in our community?

When we have a compelling vision and calling from God, we have a better chance to rally around that calling and not pursue our own individual interests and agendas. But maintaining unity in the body of Christ does not mean that every member has to think, act, believe and worship in exactly the same way. The passage notes that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. This unity comes from the nature and character of God. But notice what this passage doesn’t say. It doesn’t say there is one age group, one social economic class, one set of opinions, or one worship style. Matthew Henry once wrote, “The nature of that unity which the apostle prescribes is the unity of the Spirit. The seat of Christian unity is in the heart or spirit: it does not lie in one set of thoughts, nor in one form and mode of worship, but in one heart and one soul.”

The unity to which we are called is the unity of our hearts to love God. When we do that, we can better acknowledge the diversity of the gifts that God has given to each on of us. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. And we must also realize that God graces us with gifts often in ways we do not expect.

When I was about ten, I walked into the kitchen and found a bag on our kitchen table. Curious, I opened the bag and looked inside. I smelled the delicious perfume of peaches, but as I looked inside, I noticed the peaches were all wrinkly and bruised. I yelled out, “Mom, where’d you get these peaches? They need help!” My mom quickly entered the kitchen and tried to shut me up: “They are the overripe peaches that your aunt handpicked for us, and she’s still here!” Later that night, when we had some of those peaches for dessert, they were the juiciest, sweetest peaches I ever remember eating.

How many times do we reject God’s gifts just because, like those overripe peaches, those gifts are not presented to us in ways that are perfectly wrapped to our liking? Every day, we are confronted with people and situations that are different than what we expected or hoped for. In life, we have to reach beyond what is different and unfamiliar or initially uncomfortable to experience the rich fullness – even the sweetness – of what God offers. As we heard today, the youth and adults on our mission trip this week accomplished great things while working in very unfamiliar circumstances with very different people; yet by the end of the week, they built connections and found common ground. May we, too, be open to the unfamiliar and new, investing our time and resources so that the larger body of Christ may be built up.

Maintain unity. Acknowledge diversity. Finally, we are called to strive for maturity. One mark of spiritual and emotional maturity is having the conviction of one’s beliefs and values, yet still remaining connected to the body without having to have everything your way. We need the conviction of our beliefs so that we are not tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching or every passing fad. But we also need to remain connected to the body through Christ, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, as each part does its work. There’s this classic image of children who don’t get their way on the playground: They take their marbles and leave. We’ve seen so-called adults do that too. But we are called to a higher way of remaining in fellowship with those who are different and difficult, for the sake of Christ and in response to His love.

An 11-year-old girl wanted her dad to accompany her and some friends to a Taylor Swift concert. Her dad was a professional musician with the symphony and, frankly, could not stand pop music. He reminded his daughter about his taste in music and told her to find another parent to chaperone. On the night of the concert, when the girl and her friends found their seats, she also found her father sitting in the row waiting for her. “Dad, what are you doing here? I thought you hated this music!” “Yes, I hate this music,” her father replied, “but I love you.”

Maturity means having clarity of one’s conviction and yet remaining connected to those in community with us. For each member of the body of Christ is made in the image of Christ.

A monk meditating in a hut in the wilderness opened his eyes to discover an unexpected visitor sitting before him – the pastor of a well-known church.

“What is it you seek?” asked the monk.

The pastor recounted a tale of woe. At one time his church had been packed, but now hard times had come. People no longer flocked there to nourish their spirits, the stream of young people had dried up, and the church was struggling. Only a handful of members were left, fulfilling their Christian duties with heavy hearts.

The pastor asked: “Is our trouble due to some sort of sin in the church?”

“Yes,” said the monk, “a sin of ignorance. A person in your church community is the Messiah in disguise and you are ignorant of this.” Then monk closed his eyes and returned to his meditation.

Throughout the arduous journey back to his church, the pastor’s heart beat fast at the thought that the Messiah had returned to earth and was right there in the midst of the congregation. Who could it be? The head of Deacons? A choir member? One of the youth? A Sunday School teacher? Maybe a visitor? No, not them; they had too many defects, alas. Come to think of it, everyone in the church had defects, including the pastor. Yet one of them was the Messiah!

Back in the church, the pastor assembled the members and told them what he had discovered. They looked at one another in disbelief. The Messiah? Here? Incredible! But one thing was certain. If the Messiah was there in disguise, they would not recognize that person. So they took to treating everyone with respect and consideration, welcoming them into the body and affirming their gifts. “You never know,” they said to themselves when they dealt with one another, “maybe this one is the Messiah.” [4]

 

We like our stories to have happy endings, so we wonder… Did this church return to the glory days of people filling the pews? Perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps the point is the growth of a church where members, with love and joy filling their hearts, treated those inside and outside the church as the Messiah.

Where is the Messiah today? Christ the Messiah is here in our midst as we celebrate communion. As we take these elements, as we receive these gifts of the bread and the cup, may they strengthen the One Body of Christ, the church. As we take these elements, let us realize that the Messiah is also in each of us.

As a church here on West Main that is part of a church that extends around the globe, may the love of Christ within each of us overflow in our hearts so that we may mature in Him. As one body here and around the world, may we accept God’s gifts and live a life worthy of our calling. Amen.

[1] Assuming 70 beats/minute.

[2] http://www.teach-nology.com/worksheets/science/trivia/human/index.html

[3] http://www.funfacts.com.au/interesting-human-body-facts/

[4] http://anthony-de-mello.blogspot.com/2008/05/awareness-20.html

“More Than We Need”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, July 26, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-13

Loaves-and-fishesBack in 2004, Beth’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking the whole extended family on a week-long Caribbean Cruise. We boarded a Royal Caribbean cruise liner, and, true to its name, we were treated royally. There were chocolate mints on our pillows every night, and each day, our steward would make animal shapes out of our bath towels. At times we enrolled Thea and Wes in a kid’s camp, which left us free to do what we wanted. And there were lots of things to do: hanging out by the pools, playing shuffleboard, rock climbing, shopping, dancing, taking in shows, etc. They even had a casino – not that I would know anything about that. Even walking around the ship was a delight to the eye – there were fountains, chandeliers, libraries, lounges. The whole week was about luxury and indulgence.

But the highlight of the cruise for me was the food. Now, while so many people who go on cruises rave about just how exquisite the food is, Beth and I agreed that the food they served on our cruise was good, but it wasn’t “out-of-this-world” great. Perhaps we are jaded by our dining experiences in some very fine restaurants in Charlottesville. But from my perspective, what the food lacked in gourmet quality, it abounded in gourmand quantity. For those of you who don’t know French, “gourmand” is another word for “glutton.” And let me tell you, it was a glutton’s paradise! You should see the quantity of food they served in their all-you-can-eat breakfast and lunch buffets! Eggs of all kinds, sausage, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, donuts, pastries, fresh fruit, and then for lunch, smoked salmon, shrimp, roast beef, ham, all different kinds of salads, vegetables and desserts. I’m getting hungry just talking about it!

While a more sane person would have just enjoyed the spread, I saw each meal as a personal challenge, man vs. food, and the food was going down! One night our waiter heard me trying to decide between the sea bass and filet mignon and said, “Why don’t I just bring you both?” I replied, “No, no, no, I couldn’t . . . well, if you insist!” Who was I kidding? I ate them both. And then there were the midnight dessert buffets, with ice sculptures and chocolate fountains. At the buffet and dinner, the more people ate, the more food the staff would bring out. After a while, even I had to quit. When I got back home, I made the mistake of checking myself on the scale. Oh, yeah: I had gained more than 7 pounds in seven days! All that food was more than I needed. And the description of my big ole appetite was more than you needed to know!

Looking back, it just all seemed so extravagant, so excessive, so decadent. And that’s just how you could have described the city of Ephesus during the time of Jesus. Ephesus was a major metropolitan area. Ephesus had a population of nearly 250,000 people and was home to more than twenty pagan temples. Artistic beauty, cultural learning, pagan worship, world trade, criminal activity, and sorcery flourished amidst great wealth. As residents of one of the most sophisticated cities of the Roman Empire, the Ephesians enjoyed such luxuries as running water, indoor toilets, fountains, gardens surrounded by magnificent columns, colonnaded streets paved with marble, gymnasiums and baths, a library, and a theater that could seat an estimated 25,000 people. Compare that to John Paul Jones Arena, which can seat a little over 14,000 people!

At the heart of the city’s life and economy was the worship of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, nature and fertility. And the crown jewel of the city was the temple dedicated to Artemis. It was 450 feet long, 220 feet wide (much bigger than a football field), and it had more than 120 columns sixty feet high. It was designated as one of the seven wonders of the entire world. Because Artemis was considered to be so powerful and protective of her temple, people from all over the world deposited money there, which in turn was loaned out at a high rate of interest. Due to the glorious temple of Artemis, the Ephesians became very successful, very powerful, and very rich.[1]

I can imagine that in the midst of all this excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication, and extreme power, the fledgling, little church at Ephesus felt small and insignificant. The writer of this letter, some think it was the apostle Paul, wanted to remind this church that despite their unimpressive, outward appearance, they were in fact, adopted sons and daughters of Jesus Christ, chosen before the creation of the world. Last Sunday, we learned that while they were once Gentiles, outsiders and strangers to God’s chosen people, they were now, through the saving work of Christ, members of God’s household, built together with Christ the cornerstone to become a holy temple. While the citizens of Ephesus had the famous, temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,[2] the citizens of God’s people were themselves a living temple of the living God. They themselves were the building where God’s own Spirit dwelt. They themselves were a wonderful testimony of the grace and love of God.

In this morning’s reading from Ephesians, a prayer is offered for the church members at Ephesus. In this prayer, the excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication, and extreme power of Ephesus are countered by the excessive extravagance and power of God’s love and blessing. Paul seemed to be saying, “Some might think that what you should be most known for is the temple of Artemis, but I say that what you should be most known for is being the temple of God, and having your identity as sons and daughters of God the Father.

Furthermore, while some might think that what’s most important are the outward riches and glory provided by the temple of Artemis, “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, … you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” While some might think that the magnificent dimensions of the temple of Artemis—220 feet wide, 450 feet long, with columns sixty feet high—is what gives the city its power and prestige, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God’s love].” I pray that you will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” For Christians, the excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication and extreme power that characterized the city of Ephesus and the temple of Artemis paled in comparison to the extravagant love, grace and power of God.

Some of you might remember the movie Crocodile Dundee, a story about Mick Dundee, an Australian who lived in the wild outback but who was now trying to make his way in New York City. In one scene, Mick was walking the streets of New York when he was approached by a mugger brandishing a small, sharp switchblade. Mick looked at the blade and remarked, “That’s not a knife, mate.” Drawing his own 9-inch bowie knife, he continued, “Now that’s a knife.” Similarly, Paul seemed to be saying about the culture in Ephesus, “That’s not riches, glory and power, mate,” and then pointed to the grace and love of God, and continued, “Now that’s riches, glory and power!”

I must confess, many times it is easier to hear that we have the riches, glory and power of Christ within us than it is to truly believe it and to live it out. Too many times I’m more awestruck by the outward trappings of wealth, power and influence of other people than I am cognizant of the riches, grace and love of Christ within me. How much of our identity is wrapped up in the outward trappings of what we have? In our own lives and in our community, what are the temples of Artemis that have power over our lives and make us feel small and insignificant? How many times do we play the comparison game, and find ourselves not measuring up?

As I look out in the world today, I also feel a sense of inadequacy in meeting the needs in our community, in my family, in the church. I feel like we’re already living on thin margins, and any little thing will push us over the edge. Many times, despite promises of the power and resources of God, I often feel like we don’t have the resources to meet our own needs, much less other people’s needs. Have you ever felt like that?

I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt in our Gospel lesson when they saw 5000 hungry people, and wondering how in the world they were going to buy enough bread to feed them as Jesus requested. Philip came right out and said that money was not budgeted for that expenditure. Andrew went a bit further and started looking for contributions but all he could come up with was one volunteer: a child, a boy, who had in his lunch basket five barley loaves and two fish. Even Andrew wasn’t impressed with what he found, for he said: “But what are they among so many people?” But what did Jesus do with the lunch? Jesus took what was offered to him in faith, he gave thanks, and he multiplied it so that at the end of the day, everyone had their fill. And the food that was left over would have brought a cruise liner buffet to shame.

Isn’t it amazing how over and over again, God takes whatever we have and does a great thing with it? The Bible is full of stories like that. Do you not remember Moses holding only a shepherd’s staff and God asking him, “Moses, what do you have?” “Only a stick, Lord,” replied Moses. But in the service of God, a mere stick did a mighty thing. Remember the little boy David with only a slingshot and five river stones? But in the service of God, that stone felled a mighty giant. The Bible is full of stories of people who offered what they had (whether that be, in the eyes of the world, a little or a lot), and God took it and multiplied it into much more than they needed in the service of God’s work and glory.

But here I must add a word of caution. In our overly consumerist world, it is easy to make God’s extravagant power, riches and blessings into a buffet to gorge our spiritual and materialistic appetites. It is tempting to think: “Oh great! God will give us more than we need! Bring it on! Give me more love! More power! More riches! More blessings!” But if we grasp the width, length, height and depth of the love of Christ in this consumerist way, then in the end, we just end up being full of ourselves. But that’s not what Paul is praying for. He’s praying that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God so we can turn around and offer it back to God. Paul writes: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

The abundant power, riches, and blessings that God gives to us were not meant to stay in us. They are the resource that God gives so that we give glory to God for the sake of the church and all generations. There’s a special word that Christians use to describe this phenomenon. We call this: “Stewardship.” Stewardship is not just about giving a percentage of our income, or offering our time and our talents to the church. It is more about recognizing and appropriately responding to the abundant blessings that God has already given to us. As such, it is less about our finances and more about God’s faithfulness. It is less about our bank account and more about God’s riches. When we look at things this way, we start moving from an attitude of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. In the Kingdom of God, there are no “free-riders,” people who consume and benefit from others’ work and gifts without making a contribution of their own. Each child of God in God’s household is called to special tasks and chores. It does not mean that we say “yes” to everything, but it might mean that we go beyond what we think we could offer, trusting in God’s abundant riches to provide ultimately for more than we need.

Last Sunday, the Finance Committee met, noting that at the end of June, our church has collected $58,000 less than the ministry plan we voted on. As of the end of June, we’ve collected $16,000 less than what we collected at the same time last year. Understandably, there was some concern among committee members, and it is good for all of us to be mindful of this update. However, I want to remind us all that UBC has always stepped up in faith to meet needs and give witness to God’s abundance and grace. In our giving and in our whole lives, may God’s power at work within us, accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Because the truth is this: in Christ, we do have more than we need. As adopted children of God, we have God’s salvation. We have God’s love and grace. These are things that no money in the world, no work we can accomplish can earn. We have our church family, flawed though we may be. We also have God-given talents, gifts, and abilities to accomplish far more than we can imagine for the glory of Jesus Christ.

The question we’re confronted this morning is: “What’s in our basket? What’s in our hands? Will we offer them to God?” The good news is that when we offer all that we have to God, we find that in Christ, we have more than we need.

Amen.

[1] “Ephesus,” https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/ephesus.

[2] http://ce.eng.usf.edu/pharos/wonders/artemis.html.

“Breaking Down Walls and Building Bridges”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, July  19, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 2:11-22

AspiringTearWallsBuildBridges

Walls. Throughout history, human beings have constructed walls for various reasons: to mark boundaries, to protect inhabitants on one side and to keep out intruders or enemies on another. There have been famous walls, like the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in England, and the Berlin Wall that divided Germany. When I was in Israel earlier this spring, we visited another famous wall, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a 187-foot-high section of the ancient wall that once enclosed and supported the Temple at the time of Jesus. It is also called the “wailing wall” because for centuries Jews have gathered there to lament the loss of their Temple, which was completely destroyed by the Romans about forty years after Jesus’ death.

Today’s New Testament lesson mentions another wall, the “dividing wall” that separated Jews from Gentiles. There was such a wall in the Temple during Jesus’ time, but it was also destroyed by the Romans. If you look at your bulletin insert, you’ll find a simple diagram of the Temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time, and you’ll see a dark rectangle that separated the court where Gentiles could gather from the inner court reserved for Jews and Priests. Gentiles were separated from Jews because they were seen as unholy and unclean. In the middle of the diagram, you’ll see a small shaded T-shaped building which is the Temple building. Inside was the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred dwelling place of God, which must not be defiled by unclean and sinful human beings. Not even Jews were allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies, except for the High Priest once a year in order to offer a sacrifice seeking God’s forgiveness for Israel’s sins.

For centuries, Jews understood the holy nature of God and the unholy nature of Gentiles in this way. The dividing wall in the Temple was a physical symbol and reminder of the historical, racial, religious, and spiritual divide between the Jews and the Gentiles. For centuries, Gentiles were seen as detestable and an abomination (Deuteronomy 18:9), without God, and with no hope. Gentiles were called “the uncircumcised,” which was a racial slur and a religious insult.

Imagine yourself as a member of one of the congregations in the region of Ephesus that heard the message of our New Testament lesson this morning. “So then, remember that at one time you who are Gentiles by birth, you were without Christ, you were labeled with derogatory terms, you were excluded from citizenship in Israel, you were segregated from God.”

Have you ever been treated as an outsider? I have. When my family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1970s, my sister and I and our cousins were the only Chinese students in our elementary school. For some of my classmates, I might as well have been an alien from Mars. Looking back it’s hard to blame them since they’ve never seen anyone like me. However, some showed their discomfort by making fun of me, making “slanty eyes” faces at me, and calling me names. It was painful to be reminded again and again that I was different. It was painful to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in, to feel inferior and ashamed.

I wonder if those Gentile Christians in Ephesus felt the same way? Thankfully, while they were once strangers and aliens, that was not the whole story. The good news was that while they were once far away from God, now in Christ, they have been brought near. It’s as if the physical dividing wall in the Temple courtyard that separated them from the Jews had been torn down, opening the way for the ending of hostility between the two groups.

According to the writer of Ephesians, Jews and Gentiles were brought together as one people, as a new humanity, by Christ. Through Jesus’ painful rejection and death on the cross, all human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, now have access to God in one Spirit. Instead of depending on a high priest to offer a yearly sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, Jesus himself is described as the ultimate High Priest (in the book of Hebrews) who continually ministers on our behalf to God. Jesus our high priest not only broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, but even more importantly, he broke down the dividing wall between human beings and God.

In Christ, Gentiles were made full-fledged citizens with God’s people, and not just citizens, but also members of the family of God. Do you know how radical this is? It would be akin to someone saying that all undocumented aliens in the United States are now full-fledged citizens, and not just citizens, but members of our families with a right to an inheritance from our parents! All this sounds like amazingly good news if you are the outsider, the alien, the Gentile. It does not sound so good if you are already an insider, a citizen, a Jew. To put it another way, this all sounds like grace if you are the laborers who only worked an hour and still received a days’ wage. However, we’re likely to sound off and grumble if we are the laborers who’ve worked all day and got the same pay as the latecomers. Breaking down walls is a messy business. Some see it as an entry way toward unity and reconciliation. Others see only ruin and the rubble of a former way of life. We need not only walls to be broken down. We also need bridges to be built up to span and connect the divides.

Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, serves as a bridge for all human beings to have full access to God. Toward the end of this passage, the writer uses a construction image: Christ Jesus is the cornerstone, and in Him, we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place, a temple, for God. In these two verses, the writer of Ephesians radically redefined the Temple, overturning one thousand years of history and religious practice! Because of Christ, the Temple of God is no longer made of inanimate bricks, but is being built together spiritually by you and me and all those who call Christ Jesus “Lord” and “Cornerstone.” We are now the dwelling place for God! What’s more, the Holy of Holies is no longer a place in Jerusalem, but it is the person of Jesus, who, as we’ve seen in the Gospels, was not defiled by unclean and sinful human beings. Indeed, Jesus hung out with unclean people. When he touched them – like lepers or the woman who suffered twelve years with bleeding – Jesus didn’t become unclean. Instead, Jesus made them clean and whole. That’s why Jesus is our peace, who brings not only an end to hostilities, but who also brings wholeness, healing, and reconciliation . . . with God and with others. Christ, who left the holiness and comfort of the heavenly realms to dwell on earth and identify with human beings, both broke down the wall and bridged the divide between God and humanity.

So what does breaking down walls and building up bridges look like for us? Let me offer three vignettes.

First: Mark Andrew Miller’s life is a study of contrasts. He is black, but was adopted and raised in a white family, a situation that came with a good bit of tension trying to figure out his racial identity. He went to Julliard and trained in classical organ, and he knew he wanted to be involved in music ministry. His first job was at a black church in Harlem, and on his first Sunday, he played “This little light of mine” on the organ, in a style much more appropriate for Julliard than this particular church. The church actually stopped him in the middle of the song and told him he couldn’t play like that. It was only then that Mark discovered a whole new genre of music: gospel. So he immersed himself in this new musical culture and learned from scratch how to play gospel music in a black church. Now, almost all of the songs he composes are a mix of classical and gospel music. Mark Miller is on the faculty at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. Will and Erin Brown sang under his directorship in the Gospel Choir at Yale. He’s also the composer of today’s Hymn of Response: Christ Has Broken Down the Wall.

Second vignette: In Molly Baskette’s book, Real Good Church, she shared a testimony offered by a young woman named Celeste. Celeste said:

“I confess that I have hated myself. As I gradually, begrudgingly, painfully realized that I was attracted to women and not men, I had to radically reassess how I viewed myself. I came from a tradition where all the adults I loved and respected taught, in no uncertain terms, that being gay was a choice, and a morally reprehensible one at that. It is hard and stressful for any of us to rearrange deeply embedded convictions. The process for me has included grief-filled years of journeying through denial, shame, paranoia, fear of exposure, desperation, and, quite recently, outward rejection by those whom I most sorely want to give me protection and unconditional love. . . . To my surprise, some of my biggest supporters have been two conservative evangelical friends who are uncomfortable with homosexuality. Some people would call them homophobic, but in my time of great need, they have been nothing but gracious and loving. They respect me. They trust my love in God. They are grieved at the fact that I am in pain. They love me. And I love them. . . . Even though their lack of enthusiasm for my sexual orientation is hurtful, I love them too much to draw lines in the sand. None of us are interested in talking about who is “right” or “wrong.” And slowly I think we are challenging each other’s assumptions. These conservative friends and I are parsing out what is means to be friends, despite beliefs that hurt each other. They know that a house divided can’t stand and the love we have isn’t worth losing.”[1]

Third vignette: During my years as a college student, whenever I came home for a visit, my mom would sometimes ask me this question: “So, have you found somebody?” She would most often ask this question while she was cutting my hair. Mom probably figured that since I couldn’t get away in the middle of a haircut and she had a pair of scissors in her hands, I was stuck and had to answer her question.

“Have you found a girl that you like?” Mom continued. “Maybe a nice Chinese girl?”

“No,” I would answer, “I haven’t found anyone.”

For three years, Mom asked me that question, and every time I said, “No.”

But during the spring of my senior year in college – I’m such a procrastinator – I did find someone that I liked . . . a lot. I liked Beth so much that I asked her to ride up from Houston with me to Shreveport to meet Mom and Dad. Incredibly, she said yes. But throughout the trip, I was fearful, because I wasn’t sure how Mom would react. I had told Mom about Beth, but would she welcome her? Would Mom be disappointed that I didn’t bring home a Chinese girl? I have heard of parents who disapproved of their children dating and marrying outside their race.

We finally arrived, and Beth and I knocked on the front door. Mom opened the door and the first thing she said was, “Beth!” and wrapped her arms and gave Beth a big hug. I was both relieved and disappointed. Relieved that Mom truly welcomed Beth into our household. Disappointed that Mom acknowledged Beth first before turning to me to say, “Oh, and hi, son!” Had I been less secure in my mother’s love, I might have been afraid that Mom’s welcome and inclusion of Beth might mean that she would love me less. But of course Mom has shown over the years that her love is big enough to include my dad, me, my sister Lisa, our Anglo spouses, and her four grandchildren fully, equally, and uniquely.

I believe that God’s love is big enough to include all humanity and strong enough to transcend our pain. For God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, who has broken down the dividing walls between heaven and earth, between Jews and Gentiles, between female and male, and, I believe, between black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, trans, and all other categories that the world uses to identify people. I don’t believe that God wants to destroy those identities. God only desires that as Christians, our main identity comes from Christ.

Christ is our peace. He breaks down our walls of guilt, walls of shame, walls of fear. Christ is our cornerstone. He builds up bridges to connect us to God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. Christ ushers in a new humanity, bringing wholeness, healing, and reconciliation.

In other words, God invites us to be fully conformed into the image of Christ, which is a life-long journey that begins with our baptisms, as John Brown reminded us this morning. Remember also, at one time – you, me, we – all were Gentiles by birth, outsiders, unclean, aliens, separated from God. Thanks be to God who, in Christ, has broken down the dividing wall and built a bridge for us to become citizens with God’s Kingdom and members of God’s family!

In Christ, we have been recipients of God’s grace. May we now follow this Christ in extending the same grace to others by breaking down walls that divide and building up bridges that connect us to God and with one another!  Amen.

Go now with the blessing of God. And as you go,

May Christ our peace break down walls of guilt, shame and fear

May Christ our cornerstone build up bridges of grace, forgiveness and love

May the Spirit of wholeness, healing and reconciliation make us into a new humanity,

citizens of God’s Kingdom and members of God’s family.

Amen.

 

[1] Real Good Church by Molly Phinney Baskette (2014), p. 133-135.

“I Am No Prophet”

Preached by Will Brown, July 12, 2015
Taken from Amos 7:7-15

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Amos will not be stopped. God has given him a mission, and nothing will stand in the way: not physical threats, not rejection, and certainly not Amaziah, whom we meet in the 7th chapter of Amos.

Amaziah was the priest at Bethel. He is powerful, well respected, with connections to all the right people. He manages the religious life of the northern kingdom of Israel, and everything is flowing smoothly.  But then, in walks Amos, a farmer-turned-prophet from the south, an intruder who disrupts the business of orderly worship and threatens the monarchy it props up.

Perhaps we should back up a bit. In the decades after Kings David and Solomon, the kingdom divided into north and south, Israel and Judah. In the Southern Kingdom, Judah, worship took place at the temple in Jerusalem. The kings of the northern kingdom of Israel, however, didn’t want people traveling back to the Southern Kingdom to worship, so they constructed worship sites within their borders, at Bethel and Dan, whose true purpose was less about worship and more about consolidating power.

In today’s story, Amos has traveled from his home in the southern kingdom to Bethel, one of these politically inspired sanctuaries. There he meets Amaziah, the keeper of the state religion.  Amaziah vs. Amos. The contrast is stark: insider vs. outsider, respected vs. unknown, establishment priest vs. destabilizing prophet. These contrasts set them on a collision course for one another, and Amos chapter 7 records the crash.

A few weeks ago, at the CBF General Assembly in Dallas, one of the speakers referenced Amos, saying of him that Amos never seems to speak without shouting. That is certainly the case here, where Amos preaches that the high places will be made desolate and the sanctuaries laid waste, and God will rise against the house of King Jeroboam with the sword. The message of judgment is clear, and Amos does not mince words.

Amaziah is right to feel threatened, and he scrambles to stop Amos. He sends word to the king about this treasonous newcomer, and then he confronts Amos directly, demanding that he go make his living elsewhere, for this is “the king’s sanctuary.”

But Amos will not be stopped. He’s not in this for the money, and perhaps he takes some satisfaction in explaining to Amaziah: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”  God has called Amos to preach this message, and nothing—not Amaziah, not the king, nothing—is going to stop him.

What has God called you to do? What is your calling?

During Vacation Bible School this week, we had a lot of fun, and we heard kids say a lot of interesting things, like, “I wonder why God made poison ivy.” (That’s a good question.) On Friday, one of the little girls asked Erin if she had also been the leader of Bible school last year. Erin explained that she had done some parts, like the songs, but this year she had more responsibilities. “Like what?”, the girl wanted to know. “Well, the boring parts, like registration forms.” And the girl responded, very serious, “There’s nothing boring about God.”

Today we’re thinking about calling, about how we, like Amos, are called by God. But here’s the thing. So often, when we talk about calling, it’s “Calling” with a capital-C, something distant and ominous and significant. Yes, that kind of calling is important, but today I’m more interested in the boring parts—even though “there is nothing boring about God.”

Calling doesn’t have to mean something spectacular. There is also the ordinary, day-to-day kind of calling. How are you called to act? What kind of life are you called to live? What kind of person are you called to be?

This morning in the Ministry Moment, we heard from Marcia Parker about our Health Ministry Team. She shared about the work of members of our congregation who are engaged in the health of our members and community: physical health, mental health, spiritual health, and the intersections of all of those. I think it’s safe to say that health has been a calling for many people, and the Health Ministry Team is one way that members of our congregation have put that call into practice, in addition to the ways that they have served through their careers. As a congregation, we celebrate the ways they have honored God’s calling on their lives, and we especially give thanks for Millie Fitzgerald and Virginia Shepherd who started this ministry among us and the many who have served alongside them.

What is your calling? What is that you were born to do? Or, to bring it in even closer, what small actions do you feel would be the right thing to do today: sending someone a card, mowing the grass of a sick neighbor, making a difficult phone call to apologize to someone you’ve hurt, offering a word of encouragement? What might God be calling you to do today?

I invite you to keep thinking about that, about the ways—small and large—that God may be calling you. But now, as we consider what today’s passage from Amos has to say to us, I want to think about a second question as well: when God does call, what keeps us from following? What stops us from listening to God’s call? Let’s take a look now at three things that might hold us back—but did not stop Amos.

First: the comfort of the status quo. Following God’s call means… doing something, maybe something that we’ve never done before, but even when it’s a simple, everyday action, it requires that we get up and go. Staying where we are, where we’re comfortable, is easier, even though deep down we know that we are capable of more. Sometimes what we need to pray for is for God to disrupt our inertia, to make us uncomfortable when we’ve gotten too complacent.

Amos, certainly, was pulled out of his comfortable life. Hear again how he describes it: “the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” And he went. Amos was not swayed by shallow comfort. With God’s help, he saw through the façade of a stable political system that was actually built on corruption and injustice. Elsewhere in the book of Amos, this vocal prophet rails against the nation’s leaders who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:7). Again and again in this book, he details the wrongdoing and injustices of the society. It is no wonder, then, that modern-day prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have found inspiration in the book of Amos, adopting the refrain, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

The truth was that the status quo may have been comfortable for Amaziah and the king, but it wasn’t comfortable or just for those on the bottom. Amos himself had the choice of remaining in relative comfort on his farm or taking the risk to obey when God called. Amos allowed himself to be made uncomfortable, letting God stretch him and use him.

That’s our choice as well. The status quo is more comfortable than the unknown, and it’s so easy for us—as individuals and as a congregation—to get caught in a rut, doing the same things we’ve always done. So, dare we pray for God to make us uncomfortable?

The second thing that can hold us back from following God is fear of consequences. What will happen if I do this?  For Amos, the potential consequences were physical and drastic. He wandered around shouting that the king would die, the holy sites would be destroyed, and the entire nation would be killed or taken captive. This is not a good strategy for making friends, or staying alive. Treasonous ranting is an invitation for nasty repercussions.

But even if we aren’t shouting condemnations of those who might kill us, we still worry about the consequences of our actions. Will she be mad if I speak up and disagree with what she said? What if I go visit him and I say something wrong that just makes things worse? What will people think if I suggest this crazy new idea about what our church could do? What will my family say if I’m honest about what I believe or what I want to do?

There are a thousand ways that we worry about consequences—especially when it comes to what other people might think. This kind of fear can be paralyzing, causing us to push back those impulses that beckon us to speak up boldly, to venture forth into the unknown, or to risk honesty about our beliefs, doubts, and opinions.  Because, you know what? If we all speak our minds the way Amos does, sharing what we believe to be the truth, to be God’s truth, we are going to disagree.

To take one obvious example: two weeks ago, the Supreme Court extended same-sex marriage to the remaining states in the U.S., making it legal nationwide. The country remains divided on this issue, with latest polls showing support for legalizing same-sex marriage at 60%, a number that has been steadily rising, but a large minority dissents, quite strongly. It’s safe to say that members of our congregation disagree on this issue, too, with some people in this room deeply disappointed and angered by the Court’s decision, and others celebrating it, and others not really sure what to make of this. We don’t all have the clarity that Amos enjoyed, and those who are more confident in their positions still disagree. And I love that about this church. The leaders of our congregation can have very different political and theological viewpoints, but we still worship and serve together. At our best, we realize that we don’t all agree, and it’s okay for us each to voice our opinions, even when we differ. That diversity of thought, about this issue and every issue, is a strength of this church. Only when we speak honestly to each other can we grow and learn.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Being an outlier is intimidating. Following where you think God is calling can be isolating and scary, and other people may not like it. You risk criticism, conflict, judgment. The fear of consequences can be paralyzing. Yet the call remains.

With Amos, will we pray for the courage to follow, regardless of how anyone else might react?

Finally, the third thing that can hold us back from following where God calls is insecurity, thinking that we are not the right person for the job. We don’t have the right qualifications, or know the best words to say, or we aren’t confident enough. Surely someone else could do it better. We’re not qualified enough for God to use.

But then there’s Amos, who delights in the fact that he has none of the right credentials. “I am no prophet,” he says. He’s a farmer.  But Amos is wise enough not to let his occupation get in the way of his vocation. His vocation—which comes from the Latin word for call—his vocation, his calling, is to be a prophet—even though it’s still not his job.

So let’s keep Amos in mind when we doubt ourselves. His authority does not stem from his résumé, and his goal is not to earn a living. Everything he does arises from God’s calling. He follows where God leads, not because he thinks there is something special about him, but because, well, God wants him to go.

Where is God calling you? Who is God calling you to be? Perhaps God is calling you to be and do something new, or perhaps God’s calling is simply the encouragement to keep going, and to take those small actions that you know, deep down, are right. This day-to-day calling is just as important as a dramatic career move. So when it comes to calling, try not to think of God as career counselor, pointing us to special job. Maybe God’s calling sounds more like a physical therapist: “come on, keep going, a little further, one more time.”

Whatever form God’s call takes, it is up to us to respond. There are always forces—like Amaziah—that try to keep us from following where God leads: the comfort of the status quo, fear of consequences, self-doubt and hesitancy. Yet God continues to call us, each one of us, day after day, to follow more faithfully and serve more fully. What will we do when God calls?

Let us pray:
Spirit of God, calling out to us: disrupt our comfort, take away our fear of the reactions of others, and convince us that we are exactly the right people for you to call.

Amen.

“Sacred Stones”

Preached by Will Brown, July 5, 2015
Taken from Psalm 48

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Where are the places that are holy for you? Where have you experienced God?

Perhaps it was a slow sunset over the Grand Canyon; a labor-and-delivery room where you cradled a new life in your arms; the place where friends gathered to support you during a time of loss; maybe a music concert where the notes carried you someplace transcendent. Where are the places that are holy for you?

My mind travels back to a backpacking trip I took into the mountains west of Staunton when I was at UVA. After the campfire faded to glowing coals, I remember lying on my back and looking up at the stars. There was no moon in the sky, and I’ve never seen the Milky Way shining like it did on that cold night atop that mountain. I could see my breath and I could see so many stars that it was hard to find the constellations. The majesty of that sky has remained with me in the years since. There was something holy about that experience, about that place.

Where are the places that are holy for you?  Like Jacob and his dream of a ladder reaching to heaven, perhaps you have had a moving spiritual experience, something so profound that it would forever change you, and forever mark a particular place as sacred. Or perhaps there have been smaller moments, less dramatic than that one, but equally profound, in which the ground beneath your feet suddenly felt holy. Life went on, but that place still carries a particular significance whenever your mind travels back there.

Our scripture reading today, Psalm 48, is a love song to one of those places, and I wonder if this psalmist’s response to a holy place might guide us as we consider how to respond to the holy places in our lives.  Psalm 48 begins: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion.” It’s a love song to Jerusalem, the city of God.  As the verses progress, we hear tales from the past: a battle with great kings assembled to attack the city, only to flee in despair, trembling in fear, defeated.  These words are part of the mystique of Jerusalem, this holy city.

But if you’re like me, perhaps these words seem nice, but distant: an ancient army being repelled… okay. Where this psalm gets real for me, though, is in verse 8: “As we have heard, so have we seen.”  Here, the psalm becomes more than a tradition, more than a tale from the past. Suddenly, the psalmist is saying, perhaps in disbelief, I’ve heard all those stories, but now I’ve seen it too. In this city, I too have seen that God is here.  Jerusalem, in a way, serves as one of these: (indicating the altar from the Children’s Sermon, recounting Jacob in Genesis 28). The city itself is a monument that recalls the greatness of God, experienced so tangibly in this place. Psalm 48 joins with the stones of Jerusalem to cry out: God is in this place. You’ve heard the stories; now see it with your own eyes. This place is holy. God is here.

Where have you experienced God? Where has the transcendent reached into your life and managed to catch your attention? Like Jacob dreaming of a ladder to heaven while he was simply trying to get some sleep, where has God sneaked up on you?

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, describes how these moments of divine encounter often happen unexpectedly. She writes, “As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did nothing to make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond.” (p. 15)

How will we respond? What will we do when the ordinary ground beneath our feet becomes holy ground? Or, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it.” (15)  How will we respond when the stones under our feet have become sacred?  That is the question the psalmist faced upon realizing, with amazement, that “as we have heard, so have we seen.” We’ve seen God in this place. How will we respond?

What comes next in the psalm? “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.”  I love that verb: ponder. It’s a slow verb. Pondering demands time; it can’t be rushed or forced. There are no shortcuts to an answer, and perhaps there is not even an answer to reach. The whole point is to ponder; to pause our busy lives and turn our attention for a few moments to “your steadfast love, O God.”

This psalm invites us to stop and marvel at the holy around us.  Indeed, as we keep reading, listen to the cascade of verbs we encounter: “Walk around Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels.” Even reading these words slows us down, as the repetition drives home its point: stop and look around. When we encounter God in our lives, take the time to notice. Pause, linger, and marvel at that brush with the divine.  That’s what the author of this psalm has done, taking time to walk around Jerusalem, pondering God’s steadfast love, experienced so powerfully in that place. Only then is there room to respond. Only then is there time to write a psalm, a love song to that place and the God encountered there.

I have recently been reading a memoir by Israeli author Amos Oz, who describes growing up in Jerusalem in the 40s and 50s. He recounts his grandfather writing “passionate verses in Russian about… the enchantments of Jerusalem, not the poverty-stricken, dusty, heat-stifled city of zealots but a Jerusalem whose streets are fragrant with myrrh and frankincense, where an angel of God floats over every one of its squares.” (A Tale of Love and Darkness, p. 87) Young Amos decides to confront his grandfather about this, pointing out to him what is actually in the streets and in the air, and asking, “Why don’t you write about the real Jerusalem?” The grandfather’s reply: “The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems.” (88)

“The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems.”  Yesterday was July 4th, a day of cookouts and fireworks and celebrations of the United States, a day when public figures make flowery speeches about the greatness of our nation. Some might go so far as to say that this nation is a holy place. Yet I wonder if some of us, like young Amos, have reservations about that chorus of praise: “what about the millions living in poverty?” we might say. What about the ongoing reality of systemic racism, and the individual acts of violence like the arson of black churches and the murder of those nine churchgoers in Charleston just a few weeks ago? With all the various headlines of the past few weeks, a person from anywhere on the political spectrum can find something disturbing for them, something going wrong in this country. Certainly, there is so much work to be done and so much for which we might ask forgiveness. And yet: fireworks, songs, TV specials.  “The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems.” I wonder if the real America, the one being celebrated, is the one in ours. Not simply America as it is, but the country of our dreams, the one whose ideals we write about in our poetry.

African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote a powerful poem entitled, “Let America Be America Again,” in which he beautifully spells out the inspiring ideals undergirding our nation, before reminding us, uncomfortably, that for him and so many others, “America never was America to me.” He speaks honestly of the plight of so many in our history, and yet ultimately the poem is hopeful. “O, let America be America again—/The land that never has been yet—/And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”

Sometimes a place becomes significant for us because of what it stands for: the ideal America that Langston Hughes dreamed about; the Jerusalem Amos Oz’s grandfather could see behind the harsh reality of crowded streets and dusty stones; the same Jerusalem that the psalmist described as the joy of all the earth, where God has been encountered in the tales handed down and seen again with our own eyes.   It makes we wonder if perhaps all holy places are holy for what they represent to us.

Where are the places that are holy for you?  A nation? A plot of land where you spent a dreamy childhood summer? A Sunday School classroom? A rock in the desert?  Where were you when you stumbled upon God, or God crashed into you?

We sometimes hear about exceptionally holy places: cathedrals with brilliant stained-glass windows and imposing stone arches; cities like Jerusalem, with its worn stone walls and ancient streets; or sanctuaries like this one, where generations have worshipped, studied, and served together.  In the end, though, what makes a place holy is that God is there. And, like Jacob in the wilderness, sometimes God turns up in unexpected places, turning an ordinary rock sacred.

So keep an eye out this week, as you go about your daily life, for we never know where God might be found: in dramatic encounters or in small moments where we nevertheless sense that God is near.  When that happens, it is up to us to respond. Like the author of Psalm 48, we can stop and marvel at the presence of God, writing a poem in our hearts, maybe building an altar to remind us of what was true all along: God is here.

Even now, in this place, we gather because God is here, among us: in the smiles and handshakes, in our singing and our praying—God is here. In the choral music, Scripture readings, and children’s sermons—God is here. And at the table Christ has set for us—God is here. So, we come now to this table, where all are welcome, invited to eat and drink, and to encounter the God who is here.

“Stealing a Miracle”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, June 28, 2015
Taken from Mark 5:21-43

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Someone once said, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” In this morning’s Gospel Lesson from Mark, we meet two desperate people facing desperate times. The first was Jairus, one of the synagogue rulers. We know his name because he was a highly respected leader perched on the upper crust of Jewish society. Yet, despite his power, his privilege, his connections and his resources, he was helpless in the face of his twelve-year-old daughter’s progressing illness. Jairus had access to all the best medical care of his day, but nothing was working, and his daughter’s life was rapidly slipping away. Now, he had heard about a faith healer from the town of Nazareth, who, by all reports, was casting out demons and performing miraculous healings. Talk about alternative medicine! All the doctors Jairus had talked to thought Jesus was a quack, and all his friends on the synagogue ruling council said that they wouldn’t be caught dead getting help from an uneducated, hick-town preacher. But Jairus was desperate, and for his beloved daughter, he would try anything. So when he heard that Jesus was arriving to town, he decided to leave his dying daughter’s side for one final, desperate mission.

Jairus arrived at the lakeshore only to find it already crowded with people, people that he knew.  He felt the gaze of their curious eyes as he single-mindedly made his way toward Jesus. He knew what they were thinking. “What’s Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue doing here?” “Is he here to check out Jesus’ credentials?” “To officially welcome him?” “To tell him to go away?” Nobody really knew what to make of Jesus – and they weren’t sure what to make of Jairus approaching him on this day.

Jairus could hear the collective gasp of surprise when he fell down at Jesus’ feet and earnestly begged: “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” My, how the high and mighty have been made low, but as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

As Jesus was following Jairus home, racing against time on a life-saving mission, he was interrupted by a woman. Here, we meet the second desperate person in this story. It was a woman, so anonymous and insignificant that no one even knew her name. While women in those days held little power and status, this particular woman was an untouchable in Jewish society. For twelve years, for as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive, she suffered from bleeding. She was tired physically. Twelve years of anemia exhausted her as little by little, as her life-force drained away. She was literally spent going to doctors. She’s now broke paying for treatments that didn’t work, and she can’t enroll for insurance because of her pre-existing condition. She was also exhausted spiritually. According to Jewish law, a bleeding woman was considered unclean. Her unclean state prevented her from worshipping in the synagogue where Jairus was the leader. She was fatigued emotionally. Her unclean state also meant that she had to be quarantined from other people until her bleeding stopped. That was tolerable when the bleeding was only for a few days out of every month, but for twelve straight years, this woman was sentenced to solitary confinement in which she was deprived of human touch and human relationship. In a small community where everyone knew everybody’s business, people in her village shunned her. She was alone and lonely.

Finally, she was tired, of being tired. But she had heard about a miracle-worker who was coming into town, and at once she knew that she had to meet him. But how? A woman was not supposed to assert herself on a man. A woman like her had no business being out and about in close contact with other people. But she was desperate, and so she set out on a final, desperate mission.

She arrived at the lakeshore only to find it already crowded with people, people that she knew.  She felt the gaze of their scornful eyes as she timidly made her way toward Jesus. She knew what they were thinking. “What is she doing here?” “Doesn’t she know to stay in her place?”  “She’s going to contaminate us all!” Through the hustle and bustle of the crowd, she was surprised to see Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, fall at Jesus’ feet to plead with Jesus. Jesus stopped to listen, and then immediately changed directions to follow Jairus, and they, together with the crowd, were walking straight toward her! She could tell they were in a hurry, and she figured that Jesus would never stop to hear her story. So when Jesus passed by, she turned to follow him and thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” She felt guilty sneaking about, stealing a miracle from Jesus, like a shoplifter swiping a candy bar on her way out of Kroger. But as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Jesus stopped. He looked around, and asked “Who touched my clothes?” Jesus’ disciples were quick to see the absurdity of this question. It’s like Michael Phelps suddenly stopping in the middle of a 100 meter freestyle race to ask, “Who got me wet?” But Jesus was serious about his question, for he felt his power surge out of him in the midst of the pressing flesh.

“No!” thought the woman. “Please, Jesus,” she thought, “don’t publicly expose me!” Pastor Darius Salter eloquently described this encounter: What a disgrace to be stealing from God himself. When she thought she wouldn’t sink any lower in the eyes of her neighbors, now she would sink even lower than that. She could see the headlines in the Capernaum Gazette, “Untouchable Steals from God.” The apartheid newspaper would tell how this nobody got in the way of Jesus who was on His way to heal the daughter of a somebody. Jairus, the somebody, and this unnamed lady, a nobody, separated by social taboo, were on a collision course that day, a meeting brought about by one universal trait—desperation.

The impropriety of Jesus finds its resolution in His addressing this woman as “daughter,” the only recorded incident in the New Testament of Christ’s calling anyone “daughter.” … On that day Jesus made a loud and clear statement: “Nobody is a nobody in the Kingdom of God.” This daughter of God was just as important as a daughter of an important official. After all, Jesus could have just spoken a word and Jairus’s daughter would have been healed without taking the cross-town trip. The real purpose for marching down Main Street was to meet the woman who had far too little strength to touch God, had God not already been longing to touch her. And of course, Salter concludes, no one can ever steal a miracle, because miracles are absolutely free.[1]

But what about Jairus? While Jesus didn’t feel that this daughter of God stole a miracle from him, perhaps Jairus felt that she certainly stole any chance he had in getting Jesus to heal his daughter. Immediately after Jesus had healed this woman, some men came from the house of Jairus and told him, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the teacher any more?” What’s more, as a ruler of the synagogue, Jairus had turned away that woman from entering the synagogue because she was unclean. Now that she had touched Jesus, Jesus was now as unclean as her, and useless for further holy work. It was as if someone with ebola had just bled all over a surgeon right as she was going into emergency surgery. Did Jairus feel victimized by this woman who wouldn’t stay in her place but instead took over Jesus’ time and healing power? If only she hadn’t interrupted Jesus! Didn’t she know the desperate situation he was in? Didn’t she know that the life he once knew with his daughter has slipped away?

Last week, we saw that Dylann Roof also felt he was living in desperate times that called for desperate measures. In his manifesto, he called African Americans (not the word he used) “stupid and violent.” He feared that they were taking over the country and a way of life that he could feel slipping out of his hands. Someone had to stop them, he thought. So he decided to take matters and lives into his own hands. After being warmly welcomed by the members of Emmanuel AME, he interrupted their Bible study by shooting nine people. Afterwards, Roof told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” but he decided he had to “go through with his mission.”[2]

There were no life-saving miracles that day in Charleston. Miracles are tricky things. We don’t know the form in which they come. We want to control the timing, the purpose and the occasion of miracles. We’re often led to believe that if we only have enough faith, miracles will happen. But I don’t think the Bible is teaching us to have faith in our faith. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Faith does not work miracles. God does. To concentrate on the strength of your own belief is to practice magic. . . . This is the difference between believing our lives are in our own hands and believing they are in God’s. God, not faith, works miracles.” She continues: “Jairus followed Jesus home and watched that unclean holy man do his work. Either way, the high point was not then but earlier, when Jesus told him, “Do not fear, only believe.” If Jairus was able to do that, then he would have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus had walked into his daughter’s room, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. [Jairus’s] belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s good hands even though she had slipped out of his.”[3]

Miracles are tricky things. We don’t know the form in which they come. As we watched the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, other miracles occurred. There was the miracle of forgiveness as church members forgave the killer. There was the miracle of unity and peace, as Charleston responded not with a race war or riots as Roof had hoped, but with an outpouring of love and prayers and support across racial lines. And then there’s the miracle of belief that those nine people are still in God’s good hands even though they had slipped out of ours.

In the musical “Celebrate Life!”, the song “I Quietly Turned to You” tells this Gospel story. Ragan Courtney, the lyricist, wrote why that song was so important to him personally:

“During this time my mother who was merely 48 years of age was dying from liver cancer. She never got to hear or see “Celebrate Life!” but I was able to play this song as recorded by my new friend Cynthia Clawson. After hearing it, she said that that was just what it was like. There was nowhere else to turn except to God. In the last prayer my mother prayed, she said, “Thank you for life. Thank you for the pain, I have learned so much through it. And most of all, thank you for Jesus. Amen.”

No life-saving miracle on that day either, but ah . . . can you see the miracle of faith?

Today, the Spirit of Jesus is walking down our Main Street wanting to meet us in our pain and illnesses, both personal and societal. He invites us to celebrate a life of peace and joy and love, if only we would not fear, but believe. We only need to quietly turn to Him. As we reach out to Him, we will find that there’s no need to steal a miracle, for we are already in God’s good hands.

Amen.

[1] Darius Salter, Preaching as Art, p. 64-65.

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/charleston-church-shooting/dylann-roof-almost-didnt-go-through-charleston-church-shooting-n378341

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, pp. 142-143.

“Conquering Giants”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, June 21, 2015
Taken from 1 Samuel 17:1-24; 32-49

2_david-goliath2

Today, our Old Testament Lesson tells a very familiar story – the story of David and Goliath.  Even though this story is familiar to many of us, it is good to hear it again, hopefully with fresh ears.  So let’s begin the story!

This story begins with a geography lesson. The Philistines were a people that lived along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  During that time, they already controlled five coastal cities. As the Philistines grew in power, they started expanding their territory eastward toward the more mountainous terrain where the Israelite tribes had settled.

In this story, the Philistine troops deployed to the towns of Socoh and Azekah overlooking the Valley of Elah.  This valley was a very strategic place because it guarded an important gateway to the mountains and it provided access to Jerusalem.  Whoever controlled this area also controlled access to the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the trade routes to Egypt and Asia.  So as our story opens, the invading Philistine army gathered in attack formation, and Saul, the King of Israel, and his troops took defensive positions on another hill to prepare to stop the invasion.

Things don’t look good for King Saul and the Israelites, largely because the Philistines had a distinct advantage.  Though it’s not mentioned in this translation, other versions of the Bible reveal that Goliath had a secret weapon, a spear tip made of iron.  Iron, lighter and stronger than bronze, was a technology that the Philistines mastered but the Israelites lacked. In fact, the Bible tells us that, “Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel.”[1] The Israelites couldn’t even sharpen their own tools; they had to bring them to Philistine blacksmiths and pay high prices.  Like the longbow in the Middle Ages, the Gatling gun during the Civil War, the radar in the Battle of Britain, and the atomic bomb at the end of WWII, iron spears and iron swords gave the Philistines a huge advantage.  On this day in Valley of Elah, out of the entire Israelite army only two soldiers—King Saul and his son Jonathan—possessed a sword or a spear.[2]

Of course, there’s another reason why things don’t look so good for the Israelites:  Goliath himself.  He wasn’t just a giant nearly ten feet tall, he was a giant with the latest warfare technology, equipped with the latest weapons.  Goliath was like a thunder-walking, trash-talking tank.  You can now understand why the Israelites were losing hope, losing heart.  Beating this giant seemed like “Mission Impossible.”

While Jesse’s three oldest sons had enlisted in Saul’s army, David, the youngest and smallest boy, was back home shepherding the flock.  When his father asked David to go to the Israelite camp to deliver food and check on his brothers, it was a risk for such a young boy.  No one would blame David if he decided to just stay in the fields and watch over his father’s sheep.  But David took the risk and obeyed his father’s instructions.

At the battlefield, David delivered his provisions and there, he saw the troops.  He also saw and heard Goliath.  And what he saw and heard incensed him.  For Goliath did more than just challenge Saul’s troops, he insulted them and he insulted Israel’s God.  On that day, there was more at stake than just who was going to control Valley of Elah and the trade routes.  There was more at stake than whether the Philistines or the Israelites were going to win.  For you see, Goliath was not only the champion of the Philistines, he was champion for Dagon, the god of the Philistines.  His challenge was more than a challenge to the Israelite troops, it was a challenge to the Israelite God.  On that day, what was at stake was no less than whose God was the true God.  In response to this challenge, the Israelite troops and King Saul were totally frightened and losing heart.  But David had other ideas.

Here we have a portrait of contrasts: On one side we have Saul, a man who, on the surface, seems to have it all. He’s tall. He’s handsome. He’s a warrior with powerful weapons of war at his disposal. And yet, he is frightened and afraid.

On the other side, we have David, the youngest in his family, a herder of sheep, not a leader of troops. And yet, he told King Saul, “Don’t give up hope.”  In the Hebrew, David literally said, “Let no man’s heart fail him.”  Isn’t it interesting that here’s a boy with a heart that was after God’s own heart who was willing to fight Goliath, in contrast with Saul, a tall and experienced warrior who, in the face of trying circumstances, had lost his heart to fight for his God.  At first Saul can hardly take David’s offer seriously, but something about David’s faith and courage makes Saul change his mind and give the boy a chance.
Before David went to fight Goliath, Saul outfitted him in armor.  Since Saul and Jonathan had the only iron and bronze armor and weaponry in all of Israel, it was most likely that Saul was giving David his own armor and weapons to properly outfit him for battle.  Saul himself was a big man, and his armor was too big and heavy for David.  Burdened with someone else’s armor and weapons, David could barely walk, much less fight.  Like Popeye, David finally said, “I yam what I yam.  I am a shepherd and not a soldier, and I am not used to all this armor.  I have to fight as a shepherd with the skills and tools of a shepherd.”  So he took off all of Saul’s armor.

When conquering giants, we need to know and be ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to imitate one’s heroes. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to follow in a parent’s footsteps. But at the end of the day, we are called to conquer giants by taking off all of the well-intended but unwieldy armor that others want to impose on us. We are called to know who we are and strive to become the best version of how God made us instead of becoming a pale imitation of someone else.  And that’s exactly what David did by taking off Saul’s armor, shield and sword, before he approached the giant.

Goliath the giant was ready to rumble, ready to take on the Israelites’ top warrior. Imagine his surprise when, out of the ranks of the Israelites, came forward a lanky, little boy.  Were the Israelites joking?  Goliath might have insulted the Israelites, but he himself seemed genuinely insulted when all of a sudden, this puny boy who was too young even to shave, walked toward him with nothing, for all he could tell, but a stick.  Goliath raged, “I am Goliath, a human tank!  I asked for a top gun and you bring out a pop gun?!  You dare to disrespect me by coming after me with a stick of a boy carrying nothing but a stick?!  Puny boy, after I finish, there’ll scarcely be enough of you left for a field mouse!”

But David answered, “You can come at me with sword and spear and other weapons of mass destruction, but I come in the name of the God of Israel.  This is not about you or me—this is about who is the real God of the universe.  Everyone gathered here will learn that God doesn’t save by means of sword or spear or any other human weapon.  The battle belongs to God—you’re not fighting me, you’re fighting the Lord God!”

When conquering giants, we need to remember that ultimately the battle does not belong to us, the battle belongs to God.  God has more at stake than even we have in defeating the giants of the world that are mocking and insulting God.  As we face the giants, we can take heart to know that if we focus on God and God’s ever-present help, we can overcome the world, even when our personal resources seem small and inadequate.  Who needs God when we believe that we can fight the battle ourselves?  It is only when we recognize our inadequacy that we can witness to the world what an extraordinary God we have.  Any victories we might have over the opposing giants of this world will only come through the power and might of God.  That’s what David was saying to Goliath: The battle belongs to God—you’re not fighting me, you’re fighting God!

The battle belonged to God, but that did not mean that David was not equipped.  Unbeknownst to Goliath, David did have something up his sleeve—five things to be exact, five smooth stones from a dry creek bed.  After proclaiming his faith in God before the giant Philistine, David did something he was gifted to do: he slung a stone.  As a shepherd boy, David had probably hurled rocks from his slingshot hundreds of times. This time, David’s stone knocked the giant to the ground and allowed him to slay the giant.

When conquering giants, the battle is the Lord’s. The question for us is whether we will allow God to use us in the fight. This story of David and Goliath is a favorite of children and adults alike. We identify ourselves with David. The little guy, the young boy, the underdog wins. Who doesn’t like that?

But what application does this story have for us today? What giants do the people of God face today? Given the horrific shooting that took place this past Wednesday night at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and given the deaths that have taken place in Ferguson, in Cleveland and Beavercreek, in Baltimore, in New York all involving black lives, can we say that the giant of racism still exists?

Baptist pastor Amy Butler issued this statement after the massacre in Charleston:

“Words are insufficient to capture the depth of grief, anger, and despair many of us have felt as we heard the news of this violent act of terrorism fueled by a shameful legacy of racism in our country. Our prayers and our hearts go out to the families of the nine precious lives lost, to the congregation of Emanuel AME Church, and to the city of Charleston, SC. Tragedies such as these confront us with hard questions. As people of faith, how can we speak words of peace and reconciliation when even our houses of worship cannot provide sanctuary from the violence and hatred in our world? How can we proclaim all lives are cherished and beloved by God when our brothers and sisters are targeted for the color of their skin? How can we hope for a culture of peace and justice when we do not even have the courage to limit the use of deadly weapons in our society? Our lack of resolve, our collective failure, has created this litany of tragedies. Still, she concludes, it is in these moments of despair that we need each other most. We need our churches and communities to provide comfort and to call us to action with the deep conviction of our faith – a faith that gives us the courage to speak words of hope into a culture of death, a faith that compels us to work for justice and God’s peaceable kingdom on earth as in heaven, a faith that assures us love and not hatred will win in the end.” [3]

At the CBF General Assembly in Dallas that Will and Erin Brown and I attended this past week, Kathryn Freeman led a breakout session on racial justice. Freeman says that it is common to have a call to prayer in the aftermath of racially charged attacks. While prayer is necessary, Freeman stated that “…it cannot be all you do. The time for listening, praying, and mourning is over. We need to be actively standing against [injustice] as the church.”[4]

In facing the giant of racism, will we be David speaking words of hope and acting with deep conviction and faith in God . . . or will we be Saul, blessed with abundant resources for the battle, but sitting on the sidelines, lacking in courage and paralyzed by fear?

The battle that we’re in is nothing less than a battle to see who is the true God. Will we serve a God who is known as a refuge for the oppressed, a God who is known by acts of justice? Or will we settle for the status quo, demonstrating that we believe the powers of the world cannot be shaken?

Who are we? We are the children of God, and we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world (and in our own lives). Our weapons are faith, hope, love, prayer, forgiveness, speaking truth to power, and a willingness to lay down our lives. We serve a God who tells us again and again, “Do not be afraid.” We worship and follow Jesus, who in his death and resurrection, taught us that we are not a people who will kill for our beliefs; rather, we are a people willing to die for what we believe.

When David faced his giant, he came not with sword, nor spear, nor javelin, but he came in the name of the Lord Almighty. In his courageous action, the whole world knew that there was an extraordinary God in Israel. Can the world say the same thing today?

Amen.

 

[1] (1 Sam. 13:19)
[2] (1 Sam. 13:22)
[3] http://www.theriversidechurchny.org/news/article.php?id=537
[4] http://cbfblog.com/2015/06/19/let-justice-roll-down-racism-in-america-and-goandmakechange/

 

 

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