From the Cloud Came a Voice

Preached by Will Brown, February 7, 2016
Taken from Luke 9:28-43a

Rafael 'Transfiguration'

Don’t you feel sorry for Peter, John, and James? They bumble through today’s story looking rather foolish, but it’s really not their fault. They have been traveling with Jesus on his whirlwind tour of Galilee, with stops for telling parables and performing miracles. Crowds have met them all along the way, and when our story today begins, they have climbed a mountain in an attempt to get away for a while, to pray. Peter, James, and John can barely stay awake, they’re so exhausted, and then they have what must be one of the strangest experiences of their lives, which leaves them completely awestruck and dumbfounded.

While Jesus is praying, his face begins to change, and then his clothes start to glow a dazzling white. Then, out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah appear and have a little chat with Jesus. This is odd… Peter looks around, not sure what in the world he is supposed to do, and so he rather awkwardly says, maybe I’ll put up three tents for you guys? So you have somewhere to stay…? Luke’s Gospel dismisses this idea completely, with the side note, “He did not know what he was saying.” Well, of course not! Can you blame him? This has been a bizarre day—Moses just appeared over there! Moses! And just when it seems things can’t get any more confusing, a thick cloud comes and completely covers them up. They can’t see anything, and they are terrified. These poor disciples: confused, scared, and overshadowed by a sudden cloud. What a day!

Reading about the thick, overwhelming cloud, my mind immediately jumped to Afton Mountain. I still remember the first time I drove over Afton Mountain in heavy fog—perhaps like the fog described in today’s story, so thick that you can’t see. I had driven down Interstate 64 many times before and noticed all the warning signs posted along the road, but now I understood what they meant. The fog was so thick I could barely see a car’s length in front of me. I’m sure many of you have experienced this. Watching the white dashed lines in the middle of the road, you can only see one at a time. It’s amazing—and terrifying. You don’t want to go too fast, because you might hit something; and you don’t want to go too slow, because something might hit you. It’s a dangerous situation, but all you can do is keep going through it, with as much focus and courage as you can muster, hoping for the best.

In a way, that feels to me like where we are as a congregation. On this first Sunday without our Senior Minister, we are stepping out into the unknown. We can’t see what may be ahead of us. We don’t want to go too fast and crash, and we don’t want to go so slow that the rest of the world crashes into us or leaves us behind. The unknown is a frightening place to be, one that feels dangerous and disorienting and exhausting.  All we can do is keep going with as much focus and courage as we can muster.

In one of his poems, Robert Frost wrote, “The best way out is always through.” So in the months ahead, as our church considers our future and the challenges we face, we will go through. Not “around” or “above” or “beside”, ignoring our challenges or pretending that everything is perfect, but “through.”

This book by Howard Newlon [A People Called] traces the history of our church, through all of its changes and developments. This morning, we find ourselves at the start of a new chapter in our church’s life and as is always the case with the beginnings of chapters, we don’t know what the rest of this chapter will hold.  We don’t know what’s coming next, any more than we can see what’s ahead through the fog on Afton Mountain.

And I know that we arrive at this new chapter with a range of emotions:  hope that the new chapter might be better than the last, fear that it may not be, sadness that the Cheuks have gone, relief that the page has turned, or regret, anger, disappointment, ambivalence—probably some combination of emotions that are not neatly sorted out, a fog of emotions that makes it difficult to see.

And it’s not just UBC. In each of our lives, we face the challenge of looking at an unknown future. The cloud of unknowing takes a different shape for each one of us: a new stage of life, perhaps a daunting new semester, a life-changing diagnosis for ourselves or a friend, an unclear career move, a shifting relationship that leaves us uncertain about the future. In a variety of ways, we know how it feels to be surrounded by a cloud so thick we cannot see in front of us. It is from the heart of that cloud that we as a congregation gaze out toward our future, seeking the path God is preparing for us as we travel together through what may feel like a wilderness.

How fitting it is, then, that this new chapter of UBC coincides with the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season that remembers the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season that culminates in Holy Week and Easter. But before that joyful Sunday, we—like Jesus—go “through the wilderness.” “Through the Wilderness” will be our theme for this season, which you will hear about each week during Lent.

Before that Lenten journey begins, however, the church calendar prepares us with Transfiguration Sunday, today’s observance of this strange, marvelous, confounding story.

I’ll admit, when I first checked the lectionary and saw that today’s lesson would be the transfiguration—a passage that has always seemed strange to me—I did not jump for joy. Our first Sunday after Michael’s leaving, and we have this?? Really?? But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that this may be exactly what we need today. Before stepping out into the unknown, before venturing into the wilderness, what we need is a story about the mystery of God, a story about the unknown and the unknowable, a story about bumbling disciples who don’t know what to do, a story about a cloud so thick that no one can see anything at all. “A cloud came and overshadowed them,” verse 34 tells us, and “they were terrified.” Who knows what terrors might lie hidden out of sight, as the cloud swirls around them? Unable to see, minds racing, fear welling up inside, disoriented, scared… what’s out there?

And then, from the cloud came a voice. What’s out there in the unknown? God.

In this story, God appears not in an act of worship, or a Scripture reading, or in the Temple. God speaks from the unknown—a divine voice from the impenetrable fog. Do you and I have the courage to look out expectantly into the unknown, listening for God there? For in this story, at least, the disciples hear God speak on a day when they have no idea what’s going on, have no idea what to do, and finally can’t even see what’s around them. That is when God turns up. The message God speaks? “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” When they are afraid and confused, they are reassured by God’s voice pointing them back to Christ.

On the front of your bulletins today, you’ll find Raphael’s beautiful depiction of the Transfiguration. Take a look at this painting. What catches your eye? In the top half of this image, we see Jesus, floating in the air, glowing, with Moses and Elijah by his side, and three disciples lying awestruck on the ground. But look what Raphael places in the bottom half of the painting. This chaotic scene depicts the verses immediately following the Transfiguration, the story of a boy seized by a demon.

This is a story that is easy to overlook, an afterthought to the much more dramatic event on the mountaintop. In this episode, there’s a boy who is possessed by a demon, and the disciples have been unable to cast it out. Jesus, coming down the mountain, encounters this crowd of people, hears the plea from the boy’s father, and cures the child.

These two scenes are starkly different in mood and content, yet as Raphael realized, they are connected. A painting of only the mountaintop would miss something critical, for the transfiguration of Christ did not take place in a vacuum. Jesus and his disciples descended the mountain and entered the story that was taking place below. As Sharon Ringe has put it: “The glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated.” (in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 457)

And so Raphael presents both of these scenes together, reminding us visually of that connection. In particular, notice the two figures in red who are pointing back up at the mountain. In the midst of the confusion, among the disciples who could not heal the demon-possessed boy, they pointed back up to the one from whom healing would come. Through the chaos, they pointed to Christ—just as the voice of God called out through the blinding cloud, pointing to Christ: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

We too need that vision, a vision that gives hope. As a church, when the path forward is unclear and the future is hazy, we need that vision to look beyond ourselves to the Christ on the mountaintop. In our personal lives, when things just don’t make sense: when someone is suffering who doesn’t deserve it, when we feel lost and unsure what to make of ourselves, when we don’t know how to act or what to do, we need that vision, that voice pointing us back to Christ, saying, “listen to him.”

Listen to him, and follow him, for Christ is on the move, striding down the mountain, entering the chaos below, and transforming it into a scene of healing, wholeness, and new life. In the end, the transfiguration is not a story about what happens on top of the mountain, but the story of how the Christ revealed there transfigures the world below.

Driving on Afton Mountain in the fog, you can only see a few feet in front of you, but little by little, you make your way through. As one writer has said, it’s “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” [E.L. Doctorow].

Whatever clouds may cover us, as a church and as individuals, may we take heart as we gaze into the unknown, remembering that sometimes what’s out there is actually the voice of God, beckoning us beyond ourselves and beyond what we know, pointing us always toward the one revealed on the mountaintop, the one who will lead us through. Let it be so. Amen.

 

I Thank My God For You

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  January 31, 2016
Taken from Philippians 1:3-11

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These past few weeks, I have been reminiscing about my years here at University Baptist. I found so many occasions for which I was thankful, memories that made me want to say “thank you” to this church as a whole and to each of you in particular. I’ve been glad to have some opportunities in this past month to speak with individuals and groups to express my thanks in person.

Even though my first impulse is to say “thank you” to UBC – and all of you who put the “you” in “You” BC – I was struck by how Paul opens our passage today, the beginning of his letter to the church in Philippi.  In this letter, Paul’s “thank you” was not directed to the church he founded, but to God. Paul wrote: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Like me, Paul had good reasons to give thanks. The first reason for Paul’s thanksgiving was the joy he felt when he prayed for the Philippian church. In verse four, Paul basically said, “When I pray for you, and this means all of you, I always feel very happy.”

Now at that time, Paul could have easily focused on the challenges he faced.  After all, he was separated from this church that had so generously supported him while he was in prison facing an uncertain future. Instead of focusing on the negatives, Paul focused on the positive things that he could genuinely be grateful for. According to Joshua Rosenthal, there is a link between gratefulness and happiness (and joy). Rosenthal writes: “Gratitude is the practice of noticing and appreciating the positives in the world (particularly in your own personal world). Shifting the focus from what you don’t have to what you do have can have a profound influence on your moment-to-moment mood and emotional state. In fact, recent research shows that a daily gratitude practice can lead to increased concentration, enthusiasm, optimism and satisfaction — not to mention improved sleep quality and a greater sense of connection to others.[1]

To foster an atmosphere of gratitude, Rosenthal suggests slowing down and being mindful, declaring your thanks, and practicing generosity. For Paul, prayer was the way to slow down and to pay attention to all the ways that God remained faithful to him. Paul declared his thanks to God every time he prayed. Paul practiced generosity by writing to his beloved church, encouraging them and instructing them to remain united in the midst of some discord and division within that church. Throughout this prayer of thanksgiving, Paul focused on the present and on the positives, and this created a greater sense of connection to God’s abiding presence in his life and to his longstanding relationship to the church in Philippi.

During times of uncertainty, individuals and churches are tempted to dwell on the negatives, on the challenges, on what we don’t have. Today’s passage is a good reminder for all of us to acknowledge and give thanks to God for all the good things that are ours. Later in this letter, Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always! . . . Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Peace and joy come when we pray with thanksgiving, which was exactly what Paul was doing. What are the good and positive things that God is doing in your life right now?

In addition to the joy that he felt, Paul gave a second reason for his thanksgiving: he was thankful for the Philippians’ partnership in the spreading of the gospel of Christ.

After giving thanks to God in the present, Paul then reflected on the past, remembering the ways that he and this church partnered in spreading the gospel of Christ. Similarly, since its establishment in 1900, University Baptist has partnered with its ministers to spread the good news of Christ. In the last decades, the decades our current members might remember, we give thanks to God for the senior ministers who have led this church.  During the tumultuous 60s and 70s, for instance, Dick Meyers led the church to open our doors to welcome all people into full membership at UBC, regardless of race or color. He was also known for his creativity in worship and for his personal winsomeness.

We also give thanks to God for Keith Smith. The 1980s were tumultuous times in our Baptist denomination, and through those challenges, Keith led UBC to clarify that we’re still a Baptist church, but one that welcomes women to all levels of ministry and leadership. He was known for his commitment to loving God with all our minds through his teaching ministry. He also led UBC in several renovation campaigns to “rebuild God’s house” so that we can now enjoy our current building and facilities.

Remembering more recent years, we give thanks to God for Tom Leland.  During his tenure, the church welcomed Christians of other denominations into full membership without requiring them to be re-baptized. Tom was known for his commitment to loving God with our hands and feet through needs-based ministries. Tom led us to join other churches to open our renovated building to shelter homeless men for two weeks. PACEM is the name of this ministry, and yesterday, we began our turn to host our homeless guests this winter. Many thanks to Tom and to so many of you who have made this ministry possible over the years.

And now, I give thanks to God for my own partnership with you in spreading the gospel of Christ. I leave to others to identify what my contribution to UBC may have been. However, I do believe that during each season in the life of this church, God has sent a senior minister, music and associate ministers, and talented staff members to be partners with the congregation to meet the challenges of the day. What a good reason to give thanks to God!

After looking back with joyful thanksgiving for God’s past faithfulness, Paul next looked forward toward the future. Paul was thankful because he was sure that the Philippians will persevere in the gospel ministry until the “day of Jesus Christ,” the day of Christ’s return. Paul was confident that God “who began a good work among the Philippians will carry it on to completion.”  We are reminded that it is God who also began a good work in UBC, and God will carry it on to completion. God will provide future ministers and staff and lay leaders and members and regular attenders to continue this good work. A brief look at our past has clearly revealed that for decades, UBC strived to be an open and welcoming place. As a result, people of many races, both men and women, and individuals and families of many church and denominational backgrounds, have found a spiritual home in UBC. I believe that God who began a good work at UBC will carry this church to meet present day challenges in order to welcome and provide a spiritual home for even more people.

For decades, UBC has been a spiritual home for me and my family – and it always will be. But after today, my partnership and relationship with you will change. I will no longer be your senior minister, and from here on out, UBC’s faithful and talented ministerial staff and its church members will continue to provide good pastoral care and ministerial duties. Even though my family will remain in town for the foreseeable future, in fairness to the staff and to the church, it is healthier for everyone if my family and I give UBC the space and the time to transition and bond to a new senior minister. While we will not be attending UBC, we will be on the sidelines, cheering you on. As I wrote in the Word a few weeks ago, I see this time as a graduation – when you and I graduate into new futures. After graduation, relationships change a little – classmates see one another less, and students no longer go back to see their teachers every day.  But those relationships do not end – and sometimes, people discover a new depth and richness in these friendships. May it be so for us. In all this, I will let the Jerusalem Bible’s translation Paul’s words in verses seven and eight articulate how I feel: “You have a permanent place in my heart, and God knows how much I miss you all, loving you as Christ Jesus loves you.”

As Paul looked into the future, he ended this passage with a call to prayer. As I end this sermon, I will let the words of Paul from the Common English Bible be my final words to you:

“This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.”

Today, we give thanks to God that the present, the past, and the future of the church is in God’s good hands.  Today, I thank my God for you.

Amen.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-rosenthal/gratitude-the-secret-to-happiness_b_783530.html

You Do Not Walk Alone

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  January 17, 2016
Taken from Genesis 12:1-4; Isaiah 43:1-7

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I like going on trips to new places. When Beth and I travel, I used to always take a map or a road atlas with me because I love studying maps. Now I use a GPS and Google Maps to calculate the best routes, distances, and how long it would take – including meals and fueling stops – before we get to our destination. From my perspective, maps, atlases, GPS, and Google Maps are all good things because I hate not knowing where I am or where I’m going, and I hate the feeling of being unsure of which way to follow when the road forks, or losing time because I took a wrong turn, or being surprised by road construction or traffic backing up due to an accident.

Most of you are probably not as compulsive about planning trips and studying maps as I am, but I think I can safely assume that, when you take a trip, you have a pretty good idea about where you’re going, what routes you’ll take and how long it’ll take you to get there. So imagine this conversation you might have with your neighbor one day:

“Hey Abe, what’s up? Why are you packing all your things and putting them in a moving truck?”
“Well, Sarah and I are packing up to leave Haran.”
“Really? I don’t remember you talking about this when we had breakfast last week.”
“Well, I just found out a couple of days ago.”
“How did you find out?”
“Well, God promised me some land, but I had to pull up stakes here and go where God was going to show me.”
“Really?! Uh, so, where is this land?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“No.”
“Look, your dad didn’t kick you out of the house, did he?”
“No.”
“OK, so what else did God tell you?”
“That Sarah and I were going to have countless descendants and be a great nation.”
“Interesting. Does God know that you and Sarah are childless and in your seventies?”
“I suppose.”
“Hmm, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but have you seen your doctor lately?”

I imagine that if I were Abe’s neighbor, I would be concerned about my friend and his wife. But in our Old Testament lesson from Genesis, God calls Abram to leave home, go on a journey, and keep going until God tells him to stop. That’s pretty crazy, right? In a world of maps, global positioning satellites and receivers, Google and Mapquest, it just doesn’t seem prudent or responsible to just “go and move.”

While this story tells about a geographical journey, I believe it also addresses the nature of faith and the journey of life. When it comes to the journey of life, I imagine most of us want to know about our future. Most of us are curious about what we want to do when we grow up, whom we will marry, where we will live, how things will turn out for us. Many times, our parents and our families have expectations (whether spoken or not) about these matters, and in some families, heaven help those children who go against those expectations! I think it is part of human nature to want to know these things, and to have a plan or strategy to reach our desired future in our life journey. That’s not necessarily bad. But today, the story of Abram challenges us to examine what it might mean to live a faith journey according to God’s plan for our future.

For one thing, a faith journey requires that we loosen our grip on the steering wheel of life. In our culture, we are taught that in order to be a success, we have to be captains of our own fate. Sure, God is with us, but as the bumper sticker reminds us, “God is my co-pilot,” while I’m the one in the driver’s seat steering the course of my life. But in today’s story, when God told Abram to go, Abram just went, without knowing ahead of time where he was going, and Abram was seventy-five years old!

How did Abram do it? In this story, God summoned Abram from a comfortable and familiar world to a call of adventure into an unknown world. This journey is grounded in three promises. The first promise to Abram is the promise of land. In our faith journeys, as we loosen our grip on the steering wheel of life, we may find ourselves going in unexpected and sometimes even unwanted directions. It’s likely that Abram had a secure, stable life in Haran. It’s unlikely that Abram wanted to leave everything that he had known in order to receive an inheritance in a strange land. Yet, sometimes, following God means branching out, going and doing something totally different from what has been done in our family for generations. Sometimes, following God means going against the expectations of our family, our friends and even ourselves. But despite the uncertainty and difficulty of these changes, it is important to remember that Abram was called to a place that God will show as a suitable home for Abram and his household. According to the book of Hebrews, “By faith [Abram] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” Now, while we tend to think of land as geographical real estate, I would like for us to consider that the promised land is not just a patch of dirt in Israel, but wherever God is calling us to go, because God is already there, waiting for us, calling us home. Where is God calling you to go? Who are you called to create a place for?

The second promise to Abram is the promise of a nation, a people, descendants. God was promising not just a place, but a family, a people who will call Abram “father.” The problem was that Abram and Sarah were childless at that time. According to the standards of their time, Abram and Sarah were failures because they had no children. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, and for those of you who have experienced infertility, you know about the pain and frustration of not being able to bear children. Genesis 18 records that Sarah laughed upon hearing that she was going to have a child. In my mind, it was a laugh of dismissive absurdity voiced by a broken heart. And yet, God’s promise was fulfilled when Isaac was finally born to Abram and Sarah, and scriptures recount the ever increasing numbers of the Israelites in the generations following.

This morning, we had the privilege of seeing Will and Erin Brown as they present baby Seth to the love and care of God and of this congregation. What a powerful reminder of the fact that God is still answering the promise of descendants. God has called us together as family, to extend love and care to one another. God is still reminding us to live in faith with the people in this room and in our community so that we usher in the future and the hope that God has promised. Who has God called you to be a family with to usher in the future?

As we ponder this question, I think the key is not focusing on the future that we want, but on the future that God wants. Our faith journey is not about self-actualization; it is about the actualization of God’s will and fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom come.” This leads to the third promise that God made to Abram. You will be blessed, so that you can be a blessing to all the peoples on earth. Imagine that, God called Abram and his descendants to be God’s channel of blessing to humankind. That’s as big a job as you can get! The journey of faith that God called Abram to was not to bless him alone. God’s divine plan has always been the blessing of God’s world, and all the people on earth! Who is God calling you to be a blessing?

All God asked was that Abram walk with God and trust in the promises of a place, a family, and a blessing, no matter how improbable its fulfillment might seem at the time. In doing so, Abram was renamed by God. He was given a new name, which reflected a new identity in the eyes of God, an identity that spoke to a new future. From the name “Abram” which meant “exalted father,” God renamed him “Abraham,” which most scholars think means “father of a multitude.” In walking with God, Abraham and his multitude of descendants were also promised that they will not walk alone. Hundreds of years later, when Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, were exiled in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah reminded them, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Hundreds of years after that, after Jesus was resurrected and was about to ascend into heaven, he told his followers to embark on another journey of faith, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God is calling me and University Baptist to take a faith journey. As we go on our journeys, God is telling us:
“You do not walk alone. Just like my promise to Abraham, I promise you a place and a home. I promise you a family and a people. I promise you to be a blessing for all peoples.”

Who are you called to create a place for?
Who are you called to be a family with?
Who are you called to be a blessing?

Let me close this sermon with an old Irish blessing:

May you see God’s light on the path ahead,
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
when the shadows fall –
You do not walk alone.

Amen.

Defining Moment

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  January 10, 2016
Taken from Mark 1:4-11;  Genesis 1:1-5

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I’m sure most of you have heard that last Sunday, I announced my resignation as your Senior Minister effectively January 31. That decision was one of the hardest things that I’ve had to make in my life, but thinking about what to preach today was also very hard. I suspect that there’s a wide range of emotions in this sanctuary right now, and many of them are conflicting. What message can I give today that can address them all?

I decided that I can’t presume to know and address all the feelings in this room. I can, however, give you a brief glimpse of my inner journey these past couple of months leading up today. I hope that as you indulge me as I share of myself, you may also hear a word from God.

During these past months, I’ve experienced a gamut of emotions. Some of them were sadness, shock, fear, and yes, even a bit of anger. During my years of giving and receiving periodic counseling and therapy, I’ve learned that it is important to acknowledge those feelings and not to push them away. But I’ve also learned that it is more important to pay attention to the various voices and scripts in my head that drive those emotions.

Here are two of the voices that I heard in these past months:

The first voice I heard was, “You are a failure.”

I am afraid of failure, and I will do almost anything to avoid it. In these past months, I felt I was failing you, my church family. For you see, you are not just any church. You’re my church! Long before I was your senior minister or even before I was your associate minister or even earlier when I was on staff as a part-time youth minister… before any of that, I was a member of this church, just like many other graduate students before me, and like many others who’ll come after me. The voice of doubt inside my head asked, “If I couldn’t last more than three years as Senior Minister in my own church, what good am I?”

The second voice I heard was, “You are weak and a quitter.”

When I faced challenges in the past, my usual response was to double down and work harder to push through. That strategy served me well in the past.  If I was taking a hard class, I simply worked harder.  This same perseverance helped me when I was a grad student at U.Va.  That persistence and work ethic finally helped me to finish my Ph.D. Of course, I had help.

From the years 2000 to 2002 or so, I frankly didn’t get a lot done on my dissertation – in part because I had started working full time here and then I was working OVERtime here when our ministers Keith Smith and Kevin Holland left the staff.  But once Tom Leland came to UBC, he and many of you were encouraging.  What about your dissertation?, you asked me.  Are you finding time to work on it?  Thanks to your encouragement (and a little “spousal encouragement” from Beth), I did restarted work on the project.  And in 2004, you were kind enough to give me a sabbatical for the month of February so that I could solely focus on writing my dissertation.  What a gift!  For 28 days, I worked steadily and made good progress – and on January 29th, I wrote the last words.  Yes, you heard me – thanks to this church and a very convenient leap year, I turned that sucker in on time, and I finally graduated in 2004, eleven years after entering UVA. That experience and others, I thought, had proven to me that I was no quitter. So, you can understand why it was challenging for me to step down, especially when the church leadership had expressed their willingness to work with me.  That’s why the message, “you’re a quitter” has been rattling around in my head.

These two voices and their messages brought shame. I felt like I was damaged goods. If I couldn’t last more than three years as Senior Minister in my church, what other church or organization would want me? How can I explain this time in my resume?

In light of all this, here’s one question that I’ve asked myself: Will I let my life from here on out be defined by this event? From here on out, will my identity and my worth be defined by this?

In many Christian traditions, this today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Churches throughout the world are recalling the time when Jesus himself was baptized and worshipers are remembering their own baptisms. One of the things that continues to strike me about our Gospel lesson from Mark is this:  Before his baptism, Jesus had no resumé, no recorded accomplishments, and no spiritual credentials.  He was just some guy named Jesus from the podunk town of Nazareth in Galilee.  This passage from Mark teaches us that Jesus did not have to do anything to prove his divine identity.  At his baptism, Jesus had a defining moment when God revealed and confirmed Jesus as the Christ, the true Son of God.  After his baptism, one divine voice spoke the words of truth and life: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

During these past months, this divine voice and its words have been engaged in a spiritual battle with those other voices and other words that I’ve just shared. What I’ve come to realize again is this. It is one thing to fail; we all fail. But that doesn’t mean that we are a failure. It is one thing to be tired and to decide to stop doing something. But that doesn’t mean that we are weak or a quitter. It is one thing to go through a trauma. But that experience doesn’t have to define us as damaged goods, unworthy of love.

When have you ever felt like a failure? When have you ever felt weak? When have life circumstances conspired to make you feel like you’re damaged goods?  For those of us who have been baptized not only by water but by God’s Spirit, we are once again reminded that we are God’s beloved children. Before our baptisms, in the eyes of God, we had no spiritual resumés, no accomplishments worthy of God, and no spiritual credentials.  At our baptisms, we are publicly confirmed as beloved children of God, not as the result of our own works, but by accepting and trusting in Jesus Christ who performed a saving work on our behalf.  At our baptisms, we too experience a defining moment which reveals who we truly are and how we will live into the future.  As we enter the water, we symbolically die with Christ.  As we come out of the water, we symbolically are raised by God into a newness of life.  As such, we are confirmed to be the very children of God, beloved by God, well pleasing to God.

Beloved. In Christ, that’s who I am and that’s who you are in the eyes of God. Beloved. In Christ, that’s who the Church is, and that’s who University Baptist is in the eyes of God. In Ephesians chapter 5, the apostle Paul likens the relationship between a husband and a wife to the relationship that Christ has with the Church. Paul uses baptism language when he writes (in Eph. 5: 25-27): “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Because of what Christ has done and Christ’s continuing love, UBC remains the bride of Christ, without stain or blemish, holy and blameless. This chapter in our life together does not have to define UBC as a church.

We are a loving congregation who deeply cares for its ministers. We are a loving congregation who deeply cares for one another. Throughout the 115 years of its history, this church has dealt with many challenges, from losing this building during the Great Depression and successfully buying it back, to losing members in the 60’s when this church decided to open its doors to welcome African Americans into full membership. This church has navigated through the rough waters of welcoming and affirming women to serve in leadership positions, ordaining women to lead as deacons and ordaining women to minister as Pastors. More recently, this church lost a few long-time members because you decided that while we believe and affirm believers’ baptism by immersion, we will also accept and affirm Christians from other traditions into full membership regardless of how they were baptized. As a congregation, we have faced setbacks and challenges before, and we have emerged stronger on the other side. I have no doubt that UBC will do the same in the coming months and years.

I’ve baptized quite a few individuals these past several years. As I give an orientation to baptism candidates, I always tell them that I will submerge them under water for only a second. I wasn’t going to preach a sermon while they were down under. I tell them this because when I was baptized, it felt like I was under water for a long time. In reality, it was only no more than a second or so. But that time under water is a defining moment that signifies something old is dying and that something new is taking its place. William Bridges once said, “Success in managing change comes with the ability to recognize that something old is dying and that something new is taking its place. In the middle, however, is a ‘neutral zone’ where performance and morale inevitably deteriorate as organizational members let go of something familiar and adapt to something unfamiliar.”[1]

You and I are about to enter into that neutral zone. It may feel like the disorientation that comes when we are dunked under water. Perhaps it may feel like wandering in the wilderness. Perhaps it may be like the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. In all this, let us remember that we follow a God who delivered the Israelites through the Red Sea and through the wilderness into the Promised Land. We praise a God who specializes in resurrection after a death, so that Jesus is no longer defined by defeat on a cross, but by a resurrection from the tomb. In this season of Epiphany, let us remember that we worship a God who specializes in bringing light into darkness, and in creating heaven and earth out of nothingness and chaos.

I’d like to end this sermon by sharing a song that has been on my mind these past several months. It is my slight adaptation of a song by Keith Green, called “When I Hear the Praises Start.”

 

[1] William Bridges, cited in David R. Brubaker, Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations, (p. 102).

Presence

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  December 20, 2015
Taken from Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:47-55

Advent-Thea-5color

As we gather on this fourth and last Sunday of Advent, many of us may be a bit preoccupied and possibly stressed with the buying of the presents…finding the right gifts, getting a good deal, but not coming off too cheap. I guess one could say that it is human nature for us to be focused on the presents—the gifts of Christmas. But as we gather here this morning, days before we celebrate the birth of Christ, Christians around the world are reading this gospel lesson, a text that perhaps will grab our attention away from the shopping and remind us that it is indeed our presence – our calm and mindful attention – that is much more important than the presents or gifts that we give or receive.

As our gospel lesson opens, we find Mary not focusing inward on her own pregnancy, but rather reaching out to others by setting out to see her cousin Elizabeth. Keep in mind: this trip to see Cousin Elizabeth was not a walk around the block for Mary—rather, this was a 78-mile trek by foot and donkey by a pregnant teenager. And when she arrives for a three-month stay, there was no mention of any housewarming gifts, no talk of food platters, or beautifully wrapped baby gifts. Maybe those presents, those gifts, were there and not mentioned – but what is mentioned is the presence of God in Mary, who in turn gives Elizabeth the gift of her own presence. These words of greeting literally fill Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit, which prompts the baby in Elizabeth’s womb to leap for joy!

And Elizabeth, seeing that Mary is with child, calls her “the Mother of my Lord.” It is interesting to note that this is the only time in the New Testament that there is a dialogue recorded between two women.

In a few days we will celebrate the birth of Mary’s child: Jesus, the Son of God, the son of Mary, born fully human and fully divine. Our Christmas present is the perfect presence of the Christ Child. Our Christmas present is the fact that we all have the indwelling of God, which is Emmanuel, God with us. We all carry the presence of Christ.

Richard Rohr, in his book, The Naked Now, says, “[We] still think of ourselves as mere humans trying desperately to become ‘spiritual,’ but the Christian story reminds us that we are already spiritual and our difficult but necessary task is to learn how to become human.”[1]

In short, Rohr reminds us that we are all spiritual—the spirit of God lives in us as with Elizabeth and Mary.  Jesus came to Earth and became fully human, in order to show us how to be human to ourselves and to others. And how did he do this? It was by being present to others. Flip through your mind for your favorite gospel stories—Jesus at the well with the woman, Jesus healing the blind, Jesus dining with the sinners, Jesus calling to Peter on the water, and so on. Wherever he went, he brought people the gift of his presence – he listened to them, he ate with them, he touched them. And our needs are no different 2,000 years later. Everyone needs that internal peace and joy that comes from the presence of God.

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This is what Mary’s visit did for Elizabeth. Mary’s visit was gift and grace to Elizabeth. So, too, the family and friends we visit this Christmas give us an opportunity to bring the same gift and grace into their lives, to bring them closer to God, and to share with them the Spirit of God in us—the Spirit of consolation, of courage, of peace and joy, just as Mary did. It is easy to go online an order a present, or to drop in at a mall and pick up a gift—but to give the gift of ourselves, to make time to be with another, that is the gift that many people long for but do not receive at Christmas. Indeed, I do not think that there is a greater gift that we can give than that of ourselves, our presence, our time and attention.

Beginning Tuesday with the Winter Equinox, the light will increase as our days become longer and our nights will become shorter.  In just a few days, we will celebrate the birth of the Light of the World and we will soon welcome in the season of Epiphany, which some traditions call the festival of lights.  Even our advent tree today is lit with this growing presence of light, the nearness of God’s presence that shines in the darkness.

One day the sun and a cave struck up a conversation. The sun had trouble understanding what “dark” and “dank” meant, and the cave didn’t quite get the hang of “light” and “clear” so they decided to visit one another’s homes. The cave went up to the sun and said, “Ah, I see, this is beyond wonderful. Now come down and see where I have been living.” The sun went down to the cave and said, “Gee, I don’t see any difference.”

As the Gospel of John so powerfully reminds us, Jesus is the light of men, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  May we live in this light and soak up this presence, so that like a lovely full moon, we can reflect the sun’s ever brightening light to those in darkness. With just a few days left in Advent, try to find the time to slow down a bit…invite that frazzled person in line behind you to get in front of you…don’t fret if the Christmas cards don’t all get out in time…and it will be okay if some presents do not arrive till after December 25th.

In fact, I gave myself a gift this week – and based this sermon almost entirely on one written by Jim Knipper, as published in a compilation of homilies and reflections called Hungry, and You Fed Me.[2]  His sermon was a gift to me – and hopefully one for all of us. Knipper concludes with the reminder that while our parties and preparations and gifts can be an important part of Christmas, the greater challenge and value can be to make time for one another… and make time for yourself. And never forget that the greatest present you have and the one that you can give time and time again is the presence of God who dwells within you, the God who loves you, the One who is Emmanuel, God with us.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, (OFM, 2009), p. 69.

[2] Deacon Jim Knipper, “When Elizabeth Heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb” in Hungry, and You Fed Me: Homilies & Reflections for Cycle C, pp. 19-22.

Praise

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  December 13, 2015
Taken from Isaiah 12:2-6 and Philippians 4:4-7

Advent-Thea-3colorPolitical instability. Homeland security. Rampant fear. These seem to be the recurring themes we are hearing every week in cable news, radio talk shows, and social media posts as we face the unfolding events in our world today. However, we aren’t the only ones facing these challenges. In fact, these themes were the major areas of concern for the people of God addressed by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson for today.

The people of God were facing political instability after the death of King Uzziah of Judah. During this unstable and uncertain time, the nation of Judah struggled with idolatry, immorality, and political corruption.

The people of God were also facing challenges of homeland security as Assyria, the great power to the northeast, was steadily encroaching upon the borders of Judah. Assyria had just destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and Samaria with incredible cruelty, and their acts of terror were causing rampant fear as the Assyrians were putting on the squeeze on the people of God.

In the midst of this situation, the prophet Isaiah was instructed by God to make this proclamation: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” I can imagine that in Isaiah’s day, this message of hope was met with skepticism. “Oh sure, God is our salvation and defense,” they might say, “but we also need to save and defend ourselves from these evil foreigners who want to kill us.” But then, Isaiah wasn’t finished with his proclamation. He goes on looking forward to a day when people will say, “Give praise to the LORD, sing praise to the LORD, shout aloud and sing for joy, and let this be known to all the world.” I can imagine that in Isaiah’s day, some people would have thought he was either naïve or crazy, or both. “How can anyone give praise and sing for joy in a time like this?”

Those responses are understandable, for human beings are wired to be finely attuned to threats to our well-being and existence. Fear can be a very helpful emotion to keep us safe and secure. And yet, human beings are also notoriously bad in assessing risk. For instance, the 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Center notes that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.[1] The Jewish Daily Forward noted in 2013 that – even counting the people killed that year in the Boston marathon bombing – you are more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist.[2] Should we send someone downstairs to check on our nursery workers?!

But no matter how big the risks and dangers we face, throughout the Bible, God’s people are told over a hundred times to “fear not” or “be not afraid.” And in today’s New Testament reading, we hear the apostle Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always.” If you remember, this was the same Paul who, as recorded in Acts 16, was imprisoned while he and Silas were in the city of Philippi. In that prison, Paul and Silas sang songs of praise and devotion to God. Paul was also most likely in a house prison in Rome when he wrote this letter to the church in Philippi. So Paul wasn’t just mouthing off easy platitudes while living amid comfort, safety, and security. He lived through trying and fearful times, and despite being squeezed by imprisonment, torture and rejection, Paul’s spirit could not be broken or crushed. Paul understood that faithfulness to God does not guarantee security or comfort. He experienced great hardships, and yet, Paul displayed joyful praise and a gentle spirit, undergirded by prayer, and confident in the peace of God.

Paul was only following the example of his Lord Jesus, who, while hanging on the cross, the most horrific instrument of state sanctioned torture and terrorism, offered forgiveness to his enemies. While the sin of the world came bearing down upon him like a vice grip, Jesus spoke a word of hope and salvation to a dying thief next to him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). After hearing those words, I wonder if that thief thought to himself: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.”

In this past month, terrorism, both worldwide and domestic, has dominated our national consciousness. Many words have been spoken and some shouted, and much ink has been spilled. And I wonder, what do the terrorists want to achieve? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, terrorism is defined as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” Terrorists want us to be afraid, not only of them, but also to fear one another, so that our society begins to crumble under the pressure of that fear.

There’s a story of an old Indian who was sharing his wisdom with his grandson. He told the grandson that we have two wolves inside us who struggle with each other. One is the wolf of peace, love, and kindness. The other is the wolf of fear and hatred. “Which wolf will win?” asked the grandson. The wise man gave this answer: “Whichever one we feed.”

And so, in these coming days, we have a choice as to whether or not to feed the wolf of fear and hatred. Washington Post reporter Andrew Shaver writes: “Perhaps the best way we can counter terrorists is to do just as the French pianist [did], who played “Imagine” in public outside the [very theatre where his countrymen were attacked. Perhaps we should follow the lead of] the widower whose wife died in the attack, whose open letter to the terrorists included this: “I will insult you with my happiness.” We can refuse to give [the terrorists] the fear they so desperately want from us.”[3]

What do you see in my hand? It’s an orange. If I were to apply pressure and squeeze it, what would you expect to come out? Orange juice. That’s how you know it is an orange. If grape juice comes out, you might say, well, it may look like an orange, but it’s really an over-sized grape. Similarly, Christians, if you squeeze them, what would you expect to come out? A Christ-like spirit. That’s one way you’d know they are Christians. And what is the fruit of that Spirit? According to Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Now, none of us is perfect, and we won’t fully display all those characteristics. Yet, as Christians, when we are squeezed, how many of the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit will people see, as opposed to fear?

On this third Sunday of Advent, we continue to see the change in our Advent tree in the sanctuary. What was once a stump with a branch, is now a full tree covered with Christmons, which are symbols representing Jesus Christ. Imagine this tree under pressure, and when it is squeezed, what people see are symbols of Christ blossoming forth. This Advent, we have moved from promise and preparation, to praise, which is an expression of gratitude to God in Christ as an act of worship.

Last April, when a group of us from UBC visited Israel, we spent an afternoon in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinians, separated by a barbed wired wall from the rest of Israel. After going through a security check point, we visited the Church of the Nativity and then stopped in a souvenir shop owned by Palestinian Christians. Bethlehem is the place where most of the olive wood carvings in Israel are made, but these believers were not allowed to sell their carvings in Israel. They were stuck in the West Bank, dependent on tourists to come to them to support their livelihood. These Palestinian believers, while facing political and economic pressures, joyfully welcomed us and proudly showed us their art and craft. In that shop, this nativity set you see on our communion table caught our eye. It was made from one olive tree trunk. In the skillful hands of an artist, this dead stump was transformed into a thing of beauty depicting the scene of Jesus’ birth. If you look carefully, the baby Jesus is not in the manger. The baby Jesus will arrive on Christmas Eve. Until then, we wait with joy and praise.

As many of you know, our friend and fellow church member Mildred has been in the intensive care unit at UVA medical center. She gave me permission to tell you her story this morning. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Mildred suffered a brain aneurysm that was located in a very difficult spot to treat without risking damage or a stroke. Last Monday afternoon, the surgeon performed a scan to see how the vessel was doing, and found that while the vessel was healing, there was still a 50-50 chance that it could still burst. While Mildred was still under anesthesia, the surgeon asked her husband and son whether he should attempt to put in a stent, which will involve risk, and which might or might not work. While Mildred had already told her husband and son her wishes if this scenario occurred, they both agonized over the decision before following Mildred’s wish to proceed with the operation. For several hours, Mildred’s life hung in the balance, and all the family could do was wait.

The next morning, I went over to visit Mildred, and I was greeted by a big smile from her and her son. The surgeon had just been by to tell Mildred that the procedure went well and if things continue to progress, she could be moved out of the ICU in a couple of days. As a matter of fact, Mildred was moved out of the hospital and into rehab late Friday afternoon. But on that morning, you could feel the joy, see the relief, and hear the thanksgiving in Mildred. Throughout this ordeal, Mildred felt the love of this congregation, she experienced the presence of her deceased parents Charles and Edna Witter, she was embraced by the calming peace of God, and she was strengthened by the uplifting power of prayer. I responded, “Yes, prayer really works.” And Mildred said something I’ll never forget. She said, “There will come a day when I’ll be back in this hospital and the prognosis will be different. That’s OK too, because I know that I’m in God’s hands.”

I asked Mildred’s permission to tell this story because throughout her ordeal, Isaiah’s words of praise came echoing to me, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.” I also saw Mildred living out the truth of Paul’s words: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

On that Monday morning, I witnessed a woman of faith being squeezed by a dire situation beyond her control, and throughout that uncertain and fearful time, I felt the hope of God pouring out, I saw the peace of Christ blanketing her, and I experienced the joy of Christ’s spirit radiating forth. And it led all of us in that ICU room to give praise to God.

Surely God is our salvation; we will trust and not be afraid. Because God is our salvation, we can respond with joy by worshiping and praising this God.

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

[1] http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2012/02/24/america-is-a-safe-place/.

[2] http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-terrorism-statistics-every-american-needs-to-hear/5382818.

[3] Andrew Shaver, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/23/youre-more-likely-to-be-fatally-crushed-by-furniture-than-killed-by-a-terrorist/.

Preparation

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  December 6, 2015
Taken from Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6

So it’s December! And we’re checking things off our to-do lists…. Perhaps we are going shopping or we are writing year-end checks to charities, and contributing to good causes like our global mission offering. Perhaps you’ve filled out a Christmas dinner in a bag to bring to church for families in our community in need. Perhaps the UVA students among us are already studying for finals . . . well, maybe not yet! Maybe you’ve received your first Christmas cards at home or in our Christmas missions mailbox here at church. Or perhaps you’ve started writing cards yourself.  (If so, good for you.  You’re ahead of Beth and me.)  From cards to cookies, from putting up the tree to wrapping the presents that go under it, we’re busy with holiday preparations.  After all, this is Advent, the season of preparing for Christ’s arrival.

Some of you will be hosting Christmas gatherings at your own home, and the preparations will step up to an even greater degree.  So let’s imagine a holiday gathering.  The decorations look perfect. There’s a wreath on the door and a Christmas village on the bookshelves. The cookies have been baked, and there’s a special plate set aside for Santa. The house looks amazing because you’ve vacuumed the carpets and dusted the shelves and scrubbed the counters.  The Christmas lights add a festive flair outside, and inside, there’s a toasty fire in the fireplace, just where the stockings hang on the mantel.  The ham and rolls and potatoes and pies are done, just waiting for the last of your relatives to arrive so you can all sit and relax and enjoy the rewards of your hard work and preparations.

The doorbell rings and in comes your daughter.  How wonderful!  Next comes your brother and his wife – lovely.  Now there’s just one more place at the table to fill – and in comes John the Baptist.  What’s he doing here? Well, he always shows up during Advent. But like that one crazy, opinionated uncle – are you sure you want him here?  After all, everyone else around the table has tacitly agreed to stick to safe topics, delicately skipping past politics and skirting around sticky family situations.  But here comes Uncle John, just laying it out there and getting straight to the heart of the matter.  Frankly, he makes everyone uncomfortable, but after all, he’s family. Somehow or other, John’s a part of this season.

And what’s John saying today? The same as always: he’s telling everyone to repent and to prepare a way for Jesus.  This year, it sounds like he’s even channeling a bit of the prophet Malachi, who foretold that a messenger would come to prepare a way for God.  And what words of Malachi does he latch onto?  He says, “I see you’ve built a toasty fire in the fireplace.  Very nice. Very nice.  But what you really need to be concentrating on is the refining fire of God’s judgment!”  (Now THAT makes for some nice holiday conversation, doesn’t it?)  So your cousin steps in to change the subject, maybe talking about the weather.  But John’s not buying it.  He says, “The weather!  I’m talking about the truth! But nobody likes the truth. You can’t handle the truth!”  And then he gets started back up again, dipping back into the words of Malachi.  He says, “This table looks lovely, with the china and the crystal.  I see you even got out the nice linens – they’re all starched and cleaned, not a stain remaining. Must have taken you a while in the laundry, getting that ready. But what you really need to take the laundry soap to . . . is your own soul!”

And your cousin jumps in again, “Anybody seen a good movie lately?”

Yes, yes… in the glow and joy and peace of Christmas, we do not really want to hear John speaking hard or challenging words into our lives.  And yet John the Baptist is part of this season. Sometimes he’s even called the patron saint of Advent.  So let us give John his due.  Let us take some time this month as we make our preparations.  Let us not only deck the halls, but let us peer inside our hearts.  Let us ask not only, “What do the kids want for Christmas from us?” but also “What does God want for Christmas from us?”  If John asks us to make straight crooked paths, let us consider the crooked places in our community, places that we have the power to make a little straighter.  If John asks us to fill in the valleys, let us take a minute to ponder the low places in our souls or the low places in a friend’s soul.  Let us join together to ask God’s help in filling in those low places.  If John asks us to make rough places smooth, let’s give some time to considering and repenting of our own rough edges.  Maybe, as crazy as John looks and sounds, his questions point to the most important preparations of Advent – and maybe these Advent preparations can make all of our other Christmas preparations that much more rewarding.

There was once a military family that moved a lot – actually there have been millions of families that have moved a lot, from houses on the base to Quonset huts to temporary apartments.  One of the many things that military families learn is how to prepare – how to pack up a home, how to say their good-byes, how to move into a new community and set down roots.  For this one military family, one move came at Christmastime in 1952, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Northern Virginia. It had been a challenging six months for this family even before another move was announced. In fact, this was their third major move in 1952 alone! And on top of that, who wants to move during the holidays?  Still, their daughter knew the drill, and she, too, dutifully did the hard work of preparing.  She, too, packed her belongings and made her good-byes.  That year, she also did the emotional work of setting aside the Christmas memories and traditions that would not be possible in the new, empty home in Virginia. She reminded herself that though their decorations were packed away on a truck with their furniture, her family would still find some sort of joy and meaning, just by being together.

The family drove up to their new home on the 23rd of December, and they slept that first night on the floor, exhausted.  The daughter reminded herself to be thankful for a new home and a roof over her head, Christmas or no.  So imagine her surprise when she woke up and found a Christmas tree with presents in the otherwise empty home.  You see, her mother had been doing some preparations of her own. She had carefully hidden the Christmas boxes in the trunk of the car so that she could sneak them out to prepare for the holiday. Who knows how she was able to find the tree that night, but there is no limit to what a resourceful woman can accomplish! That Christmas, celebrating Christmas amidst the chaos of a move, was one that Martha Wood has never forgotten.

I love that story because Christmas does unfold in the midst of chaos.  We live in chaotic times, and this story is a good reminder that God chose to enter our broken, unsettled world in human form.  But I also love that story because it shows that every Advent, there are two sorts of preparations going on.  We, like Martha Wood, are preparing for a world of managed expectations.  But even while we do our preparations, God, like Martha’s mother, is also at work, preparing to enter into our lives in ways that are unexpected and bigger than we could imagine.

This Advent, let us make room for John the Baptist and his challenging questions.  Let us do the hard work of preparing.  Let us look at the low valleys and the crooked roads and the rough places in our lives.  But even as we do our work, let us also prepare to be surprised by the God who broke into our world and continues to break in, in ways as quiet as Christmas Eve or as noisy as Christmas morning.

Amen.

Promise

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  November 29, 2015
Taken from Jeremiah 33:14-16 and  Luke 21:25-33

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Today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent, which marks the beginning of the church year for many Christian traditions and denominations. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus which means “coming.” In Advent, we focus on three “comings” of Jesus Christ. First, we remember the coming of Jesus in human history as a baby born of Mary in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. Second, we anticipate the coming of Christ in glory and in power at the end of time. Finally, we welcome the coming of Jesus Christ into our lives, here and now.

Advent is a season of waiting for the coming of God in Christ. We need Christ to come. Like writer Bobby Gross, we realize that “Our world is messed up and we are messed up. We lament our condition and long for God to set things right, to make us better. So we pray, we watch and we wait for signs of [God’s] presence.”[1] Wendy Wright suggests that of all types of waiting, the waiting of pregnancy is most like the waiting that we do during Advent. “The waiting of pregnancy is like the waiting we do for God,” Wright says. “We carry hidden within ourselves new life. . . . We wait with unimaginable longing to see the face of the one we know to be already with us. Like an unborn child, the life of God grows unseen yet profoundly felt. Insistently pushing and prodding us, enlarging the contours of our lives and our hearts, as intimate to us as our own breathing, yet utterly other, the divine presence waits to be born.”[2]

Beth and I struggled with infertility for about two years. That was a difficult time for us, in part because many of our friends were having babies. Of course, we were happy for our friends, but at the same time, we grieved over our inability to conceive. With every passing month, we longed and yearned for a sign that Beth was pregnant.  After a time, we saw a specialist and got the help we needed. I’ll never forget the day that Beth handed me a pregnancy test, and I saw those two, faint little lines that signaled a promise of something new, a new life that was coming into our lives. That was Thea! On the surface, nothing had changed. At first, there was no big outward sign, no billboard, no visible physical manifestation that announced the pregnancy. But something promising was definitely taking place inside Beth, and we eagerly and expectantly waited for the fulfillment of that promise.

In our Old Testament lesson this morning, the people of God were going through a very painful time. Both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were defeated by foreigners. Jerusalem was ransacked and laid in ruins. The people were yearning and longing for a better future. During those dark days, the prophet Jeremiah was called by God to speak a word of hope that was rooted in a promise: “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.”

Back when David was King of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah, God promised David in 2 Samuel 7 that God would establish the throne of David’s kingdom forever. But now, after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of King Jehoiachin, a direct descendant of David, the kingly line of David came to an end. In other words, the family tree of David was cut down, and all that was left was just a stump. How could God fulfill the promise made to David all those years ago? Yet, God said, “You may only see a stump, but a shoot, a branch from David’s family tree will spring forth, and he will do what is just and right in the land. The days are coming, when I will fulfill the good promise I made to my people.” The promise of a Messiah, a Savior of God’s people will come. You see just a stump – but I promise you, there’s life in that stump. Just you wait.

As Christians, we believe in Christmas as the fulfillment of God’s promise as pronounced by Jeremiah. In the birth of Jesus, a righteous Branch from David’s line, the waited-for Messiah, and the Savior of God’s people has come. We believe that the promises of God in the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus – and yet, we’re also aware that these promises are not fully fulfilled. For instance, Jesus announced a kingdom at hand and yet spoke of a kingdom to come. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many, and yet pointed to a day of salvation in the future. We who belong to Christ are a new creation, and yet we groan and yearn for the day when the whole cosmos will obtain with us the freedom of glory. So we find ourselves in this time of now and in the time of yet to come.[3]

Similarly, in our Gospel lesson from Luke, we get another revelation of dark and painful times that seem to come right out of a scene from the Hunger Games or the Left Behind books and movies. It was part of Jesus’ speech about the signs of the end of the age, and they resemble today’s headlines. The text refers to nations in anguish . . . perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea . . . people fainting and fearful from terror. As the text notes, many were apprehensive of what was coming on the world. We have that same sense of apprehension today.

Preacher David Davis reflects on what it means that churches around the world are reading this passage today. He says the text – part of the lectionary, selected years ago – speaks not only to the tumult of world events, but it also points to the larger significance of Advent. Yes, Advent is a time of waiting for Christmas—the celebration of Jesus’ birth in history. But ultimately we are not waiting for Christmas; we are waiting for Christ’s promise of His return.[4] For even after the first coming of the promised Messiah, people are still longing for a better future, waiting for the time when God’s justice will roll like a river, and yearning for righteousness like a mighty stream. We’re waiting for the reordering of this world – for the time when the barren, gray branches of our world sprout with spring leaves. These days are coming, promises the Lord. Just you wait.

Therefore, while Advent looks back to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah, Advent also looks to the future, counting on God’s promise of the reconciliation of all creation. In the meantime, Advent begins by acknowledging our current reality. We live in a time that is marked by disorientation, loss, pain, and longing. According to writer Bobby Gross, Advent gives us permission to groan, whether about world events or about our own lives. He writes: “Some of us readily feel the weight of these holidays.” [For some of us, it can mean a] “drift into depression, … the anxiety of difficult family relationships, the resurfacing grief over those we have lost, or the discouragement from daily headlines. We feel cynical in the midst of all the holiday hoopla and superficiality. It makes us want to groan.”[5]

While Advent acknowledges our present reality, it also invites us to see a deeper reality, if only we have the eyes to see. Advent is a time that is pregnant with promise if we know where to look. Advent draws our attention to the branch that dares to sprout forth from a seemingly dead stump. Advent draws our attention to a new leaf on the verge of peeking out on a limb that seems barren. Advent draws our attention to see the second faint line that indicates a pregnancy on a pregnancy test, way before more visible signs of a pregnancy are evident.

In this age of “instant messaging” and “next day delivery,” it is hard for us to comprehend the value of waiting. We just celebrated Thanksgiving and on that day, we gather for a meal that can’t be rushed. The turkey roasts slowly and the stuffing or the pies or the potatoes slowly warm – yet as the food is slowly prepared, it fills our house with its aroma and a sense of anticipation. As a church we’ve also just had the pleasure of welcoming Seth Brown (ROSE) – and we all know, we cannot rush a pregnancy. Yet during those months, we are filled with interest and concern and anticipation. Advent, too, is a reminder that God’s promises cannot be rushed either, and we wait prayerfully and with anticipation for signs of growth and healing and the unfolding majesty of God’s work in our lives, in our church, in our community, and in our world.

In our Devotions for Advent booklet, Ray Gaines wrote a beautiful reflection on this morning’s passage from Jeremiah. He recalled the time when driving a van full of Jubilate members back from a late fall concert in Roanoke. Ray writes: “As we passed the star on Mill Mountain, someone started singing Mendelssohn’s “There Shall a Star” and the rest of the group joined with him in perfect harmony. The text of this anthem mirrors this passage from Jeremiah and eventually evolves into the hymn “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star.” Ray continues: “This is particularly meaningful as we approach the dark days of midwinter. We yearn for the Morning Star; the Branch of David; the Light of the World. We long for the bright future that He intends for us and the joy that comes with it.” When we can see through the dark days of midwinter to the promise of the morning light, to the Branch of David, Advent also gives us permission, not just to groan, but to sing.

That’s Advent in a nutshell for you. Advent acknowledges the dark days of midwinter and gives us permission to groan and to grieve. Advent also expresses the longing that we have for a brighter future and invites us to sing. Advent finally reminds us that we have been promised Jesus Christ, the Branch of David, the Light of the World. During this Advent, may we hold fast to this Christ, who came as promised by God, who promises to come again, and who is coming into our lives here and now, mysteriously growing and unfolding in God’s own timing and speed. May we trust in God’s promise, and may we pray and proclaim, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Amen

 

 

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, p. 37.

[2] Wendy M Wright, in Prayers for Expectant Parents, ed. Mary Caswell Walsh, p. 22.

[3] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, p. 43-44.

[4] David A. Davis, “Be Vigilant at all Times,” Hungry, and You Fed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C, p. 9.

[5] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God, p.44.

Between Alpha and Omega

Preached by Michael Cheuk,  November 22, 2015
Taken from Revelation 1:4b-8

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We are living in tumultuous and uncertain times. There is drama in our world and in our lives. We see and hear and feel it all around us. Fears about terrorist attacks, bombings, the refugee crisis. Worries about tensions and violence between groups of people in our country. Anxiety about relationships, our classes and grades, our jobs, our health, our future.

In the midst of these times, in the midst of the dramatic events unfolding in our world and in our lives, what are we called to be and to do as the people of God?

This isn’t the only time that God’s people have faced such challenges. The book of Revelation was a letter to seven churches. It was both a word of encouragement in the midst of tumultuous and dramatic times, and a word of challenge to hold fast to the faith. This letter took what was going in the lives of those believers and framed and situated it inside the big picture of the on-going, unfolding divine drama of God. And it gave a glimpse, a vision, a preview if you will, of how it will all end.

Perhaps all of us have experienced times when we were so hemmed in by the challenges and worries of life that we couldn’t see beyond those concerns?  When we were so enmeshed in the thicket of the trees that we couldn’t see the forest? During times like these, we need a revelation that gives us a vision of the big picture. During times like these, it is helpful to hear these words: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

As you know, “alpha” is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and “omega” is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. In other words, we have a vision of God who in Christ is active and at work from the very beginning, and will be at work to the very end. God, who is present with us in the present, is the same God who was always present in the past, and will be present in the future. In fact, God in Christ IS the beginning and the end.

“I hope you recognize what this means,” writes theologian Richard Rohr. “It means that you are inside something very sacred, very beautiful, and inherently holy. We ourselves don’t make it holy because it already is. You are the in-between of the Alpha and the Omega, you are the becoming-in-time of the eternal Christ. In other words, Christ is indeed the pattern of the universe. Life has meaning and direction and purpose!”[1]

Isn’t that amazing? We are a part of the on-going divine story of how God in Christ is at work in our lives and in the world, from beginning to the end, between the alpha and omega. Every moment in time is saturated with Jesus Christ, who loves us and desires to free us from our sins. Every moment in time, the offer of grace, God’s unmerited favor and loving-kindness, and the offer of peace, God’s tranquility and wholeness, is available to us. Every moment in time, we as God’s people, a royal priesthood, are called to immerse ourselves in this sacred, beautiful, and inherently holy story so that others may experience God’s love, grace and peace. I now call on Jocelyn, our newly baptized, to share her story.

*******************

Two and a half years ago, I was lost. The summer after my fourth year at UVA, I didn’t know where to turn next. I wasn’t speaking with my family. I didn’t have a job. I hadn’t graduated with my class, and I didn’t feel like I could or even wanted to continue with my studies. I didn’t know who I was anymore because my whole life I had been a star student, an outspoken leader, a hard worker, and I felt like I had lost all of that. And then, one Sunday morning I wandered to the Corner – early, because I wasn’t sleeping much. I’d been to the Corner countless times during my UVA career, and I joylessly checked in to my regular haunts, but they were largely deserted on a summer morning. Finally, I reached the end of the familiar storefronts. And there I found a church.

 My family isn’t religious, not even Christmas-and-Easter-only religious. We were Christmas-if-grandma-made-us-maybe church-goers, and my only real exposure to the church experience was a high school boyfriend whose dad was a music minister.  But that Sunday morning, I wandered into University Baptist and sat in the back, and all that started to change. The sermon that Michael preached that morning was about God’s love for us. And isn’t that really what all sermons are about? But during this sermon, Michael was specifically speaking about conditional love. Now, I know parents’ love for their children is unconditional, and even a friend’s love can be unconditional, but that summer I felt so undeserving of love. I was no longer this person, this high-achiever that my friends and family once knew, so how could they still love me? But Michael’s message that morning was that, no matter what we do, no matter who we become, no matter who is angry with us or heartbroken by our words or actions, God’s love for us is always there and will always be there. God’s love for us is so big that we cannot do anything to thwart it. God wanted so badly to prove this to us that He sacrificed His only son to prove to us that the depth and breadth of His love and its absolute conditionless-ness could not be fathomed. And so that morning I was shown a new measure of my worth – not grades or accolades or even the love of my family, but God’s love for me.

 As I filed out of the church at noon, feeling uplifted and, for the first time in months, hopeful, a man in a black robe with a bushy moustache reached out his hand to me. “Are you a college student?” he asked. “Do you sing?” And thus, I met Alba. “I’m a musician, but I don’t really sing,” I mumbled, taken aback. “Well, we have a college choir and we’re looking for anyone who can carry a tune,” said Alba. “We rehearse on Sunday nights once the school year starts, starting with dinner at six. Please stop by.” And just like that, UBC became a part of my life.

Sometimes, we must be torn down in order to be built up. Some of the people who have known me since I was a kid think that my depression and my anxiety cast a shadow over me, over who I was and who I am, and when I fight back those particular demons I reemerge, the same person I’ve always been, shining more brightly into the world. I disagree with them. I think that, as I’ve grown and matured over the last few years, as 20-somethings are wont to do, I’ve been built back up into a new person. Sure, I’m still competitive and high-achieving, and I can definitely be just as impulsive and bossy as I was at ten and at sixteen and at twenty-two. But the person I am now has been built by Christ’s love for me, and the love and support of this church family. Thank you so much to UBC for your wonderful members and your wonderful ministries. You took a broken young woman and showed her that there was so much more to this life and this world than she had ever known. In Jesus’ name, AMEN

********************

Jocelyn is a joyous example of the transforming power of God’s love in Christ here and now. In her baptism, Jocelyn is immersed into a divine drama that was begun by God at the beginning of creation. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, her hope and her future is built on this Christ who will come again in the future to make all things new.

This saving and transforming work of God does not take place in isolation, but in the context of a community, a church. Jocelyn has a hope and a future in Christ, because of the faithful gifts of this congregation, by the cooking and sharing of meals on Sunday nights, by the investment of your time, your care, and your prayers to members of Jubilate. Your gifts made it possible for members of Jubilate to love and minister with Jocelyn in ways that we old folks never could. In turn, Jubilate continues to bless us with their music and their presence, and we give thanks to God for all of their gifts. Jubilate is just one example of how our gifts support ministries that help us and others, like Jocelyn, live into the plans that God has for us, plans that give us hope and a future.

We are now coming to the climax of our stewardship season. Today, we give thanks to God for God’s bounty and blessings. Today, we give thanks to God for Jocelyn’s new life in Christ. Today, we give thanks to God for placing us inside something very sacred, very beautiful, and inherently holy . . . of living out the on-going divine story of God’s redeeming work between the alpha and the omega. Today, we give out of our need to express our thanks to this gracious God.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” In this time between the alpha and omega, may the response of our lives and our gifts express our thanksgiving and faith in God’s hope and future.

Amen.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, “I am the Alpha and Omega,” in Sick and You Cared for Me, p. 315.

 

How Then, Shall We Live?

Preached by Michael Cheuk, November 15, 2015
Taken from  Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

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Today, we gather with heavy hearts as we watch and hear the continuing news about the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday. We mourn for the family and friends of those who were killed and injured. We pray for them and for all those who are dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. During times like this, we see the worst that human beings can do to each other. But it’s also helpful to remember the words of that great philosopher, Mr. Rogers. The children’s television host remembered that in moments of tragedy or grief, his mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Mr. Rogers explained, “To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” When we look for the helpers in France, we can find medics or investigators or military personnel, and we are thankful for all of them. We can also see everyday people stepping up to offer help. For instance, since the French borders have been closed, Parisians have taken to the internet to broadcast that they have an extra room or a sofa where stranded travelers can stay. On social media, they use the hashtag, #PorteOuverte, or “Open Door.” And closer to home, Americans are using the hashtag #StrandedinUS to offer a place to stay for travelers who are unable to return to their home in France. Those are small gestures of sacrifice offered to strangers in need.

These small signs of help and provision and sacrifice in the face of evil are appropriate as we read this morning’s New Testament lesson from the book of Hebrews. As I’ve said before, this book is an extended sermon that reminds us that Jesus is our ultimate help, our eternal refuge.  He is both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice, once and for all. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are fully forgiven by God. The preacher of Hebrews reminds us that because of Christ’s perfect priesthood and sacrifice, a new and living way has been opened up for us. So, in light of Christ and his saving sacrifice, how then, shall we live?  And we might ask ourselves, in light of yet another senseless tragedy in our broken world, how then, shall we live?

In this passage from Hebrews, we are given three exhortations or encouragements that begin with the words “Let us . . .”

First, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart. First and foremost, a new way of living in Christ is not defined by rules and laws. A new way of living is defined by a heart-felt relationship with a loving God. While this verse calls us to draw near to God, the truth of the matter is that God has already drawn near to us. Even back in Old Testament times, it was revealed to the prophet Jeremiah that God desired to renew an intimate relationship with God’s people. This took place during one of the most traumatic time in Jewish history. Jerusalem had been invaded by the Babylonians, who not only destroyed the Temple and massacred thousands of Jews, they also captured many of the survivors and took them back to Babylon as slaves. It was understood that God had forsaken the Jewish people and left them to suffer in the hands of the enemy. In the midst of this dark, traumatic time, Jeremiah 31:33 records, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

Minister and therapist Wayne Muller has spent the last thirty-five years working with people suffering abuse, alcoholism, poverty, illness and loss. I just finished his book How Then, Shall We Live?, and many of the illustrations of this sermon will come from the book. Muller notes that many of us are shaped by trauma. In his experience, many of us tend to identify ourselves by our past experiences or our previous failures. Yet Muller argues that while we can’t escape our past, our history is an incomplete lens. Our past experiences and disappointments “cannot describe our true and deepest nature.”[1] Instead, he contends that “We are children of God, of spirit, and we inherit the grace and courage and wisdom of all who have gone before. We have been given a previous and potent gift. We must reclaim the richness of the miracle of being alive.”[2] In Christ, our true and deepest nature is that of a child of God, and we are the people of God, no matter what has happened to us in the past. We embrace our truest identity when we draw near to the loving God who calls us to be God’s own.

When we are secure in our identity before God, we are better able to embrace the second exhortation made by the preacher of Hebrews. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God who promised is faithful. Despite the heart-wrenching headlines in the paper, our hope is not based on wishful thinking. Our hope is based on the promises of God, who is faithful. In the same section of the book of Jeremiah that I reference earlier, God made a promise, the same promise that is the basis of our stewardship theme this year. In Jeremiah chapter 29, God told Jeremiah to proclaim a promise to the exiled Jewish people who were living as captured slaves in the city of Babylon: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” In dark times when our past has been traumatic and our future looks dim, God calls us to draw near with a sincere heart and hold unswervingly to the hope we profess in faith. We do that by seeking God with all our heart and placing God in the center of our lives.

What [or who] is at the center of your life? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by looking at our daily schedules and our check books or credit card records.  Reading them, we can examine where we spend our energy, our time, or our money. This is what receives our care and attention—and, by definition, our love. Whatever [or whoever] we are giving our time and our attention to, day after day, this is the kind of people we will eventually become. In other words, we become what we love.[3]

That’s why, in response to the question, “How then, shall we live?”, the first two answers do not tell us what to do; rather they encourage us to remember who we are in Christ and to be clear about who or what we love. Finally, we get to the third exhortation: let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, but encouraging one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

For the preacher of Hebrews, the “day approaching” most likely referred to the final Day of Judgment at the end of the world, but for us, I think it can also be applied to the final day of our earthly lives. We don’t know exactly when that day will be – it may come unexpectedly, like the victims of the attacks in France; it may come sooner or it may come later. However, we do know that day is approaching.  How then, shall we live in light of that day?

Muller’s book tells the story of one his patients, Paul, who was dying of cancer. Paul was not afraid; he knew it was time. But he also wished he had ten more years to live, free of this illness.  Muller asked Paul, “What would you do if we could give you those ten years?”

Paul spoke easily and certainly, “I would be kind. I would live my life with kindness. I would teach my children to be kind, too. This is all ever really wanted to do, just to be kind, to be loving.”

Paul continued: “A few months ago, when I was still feeling strong, I thought I would treat myself, so I walked into a bakery and ordered two of my favorite cookies. I told the girl behind the counter that they were my favorite, and she said she loved them, too, but they were very expensive. When I left, I thought about it for a minute, and then I went back and bought another cookie, and gave it to her. ‘This one is for you,’ I said. She was so surprised by my kindness. ‘You are such a kind man,’ she said. I felt absolutely wonderful. Such a small thing, such an easy thing to do. This is how I would live my life, if only I had more time.”[4]

You, me, we do have more time. So how might Paul’s experience and insight spur us on toward love and good deeds?  At this season of the year, our church offers so many opportunities to demonstrate love and undertake good deeds.  Those of you who were at church two Wednesdays ago were able to see our season offerings laid out on tables, from shoeboxes for children to Christmas dinner in a bag for families to toiletries for women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center, plus many more. Seeing all those opportunities together made me thankful again for the many ways our church members spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Seeing the many opportunities laid out together also reminded me that no one church member need do everything – working together, we each take on the projects that call to us, and as a body, we can  have a tremendous impact locally and beyond.  Even so, I love the way that throughout the year, we have different projects and emphases, so that continually, almost habitually, we spur one another on to love and good deeds.

Our love and our good deeds are intimately related to God’s plans to give us hope and a future. Remember what I said earlier about Jeremiah 29? It was written to God’s people who were taken to captivity in Babylon. You would expect Jeremiah to tell God’s people to shun their captors, to curse Babylon, to wish death and destruction upon that city. Instead, listen to what God says in Jeremiah 29:4-7: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Three verses later, God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, plans to give you hope and a future.” God was instructing God’s people to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon, to pray to the Lord for that pagan empire, home of present-day Iraq.

In the aftermath of Paris, how then, shall we live? What ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has done in these terrorist attacks is to provoke us, to spur us on NOT toward love and good deeds, but toward hate. Just as ISIS harmed and killed indiscriminately, we can’t be provoked to hate and blame indiscriminately all Muslims for the acts of extremists. Because just as we become what we love, I believe we also become what we hate. I’m reminded by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., whose words from the 60’s still have wisdom today: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

How then, shall we live – as individuals and as a church? In these dark and traumatic times, many of us simply do not know. But what if our “don’t know” is not a signal to just react, to just do something, but rather an indication that it is time to be quiet, to listen, and to draw near to God and to hold on unswervingly to the hope we profess in God? What if the answers to our questions about life and mission and practice are already speaking to us, and in our rush to find them, we miss the easy, gentle wisdom that would teach us all we need to know if we simply center ourselves and be still for just a moment?[5] Maybe that’s the value of the habit of meeting together as a community of faith, to rest and take in a Sabbath, to slow down and be still enough to engage God and others with the important questions of life.

As we meet together on this Sabbath day, it is good to be reminded that we, as individuals and as a church, have already been given everything that we need in Christ. All we are is a result of the One who has loved us wholly, completely, sacrificially, and unconditionally. And even though we may not fully know our future, we have a sure hope in the One who holds our future, even in these dark and troubling times.

Therefore, during our stewardship emphasis, we ask these questions:

“Who or what do you truly love?”
“Who or what holds my future, your future, our future?”
“How is God calling us to respond to God’s presence … in our lives and in our church?”
“In light of Christ’s sacrificial love, how then, shall we give?”
“In light of Christ who is making us holy, how then, shall we live?”

Amen

 

[1] Wayne Muller, How Then, Shall We Live? Kindle edition, location 269.

[2] Ibid., location 388.

[3] Ibid., location 1337-1338.

[4] Ibid., location 2175-2186.

[5] Ibid., location 2644-2650.

 

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