Words Worth Hearing: You Will Know Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words Worth Hearing: Saved by Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words Worth Hearing: The Ten Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dying for Rebirth

Sermon preached by Michael Cheuk, on June 22, 2014.  Taken from Matthew 10:24-39.

This morning’s New Testament lesson from Matthew is a challenging word. I didn’t choose it. It was the assigned Gospel lesson for today in the Revised Common Lectionary. This passage is a hard teaching of Jesus that challenges my tendency to see him solely in comforting, pastoral terms. But Jesus declares some sobering realities to his disciples. In the beginning of this chapter, Jesus had just sent out his twelve disciples to the nearby Jewish towns and villages on a mission of preaching and healing. Gone were the comforting days when these students were nestled in the cocoon of Jesus’ protective care, being fed by Jesus, watching and learning from Jesus their teacher. Now, Jesus is pushing his students out into the world, and Jesus is preparing them to face resistance and persecution as a result of the mission. This resistance will come not just from outside, from those who are not yet believers. No, the resistance may also come from within, from family members, and yes, even from themselves. Many times, “resistance” is too strong a word. “Concern” might better describe the feelings of those who need more information, who need greater clarity before going on mission. After all, Jesus himself advised his followers to “count the cost” before embarking on an important venture.

In the past couple of weeks, I have received comments and thoughts from some of you regarding my idea of launching a second service for the purpose of reaching out to the university community. Thanks to your input, I’ve come to realize that I need to explain and clarify more about what I’m proposing. Allow me to offer these thoughts for your consideration. read on

Different Gifts, Common Good

Sermon preached by Michael Cheuk,  for Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014.  Taken from Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

For those of us who are parents, we remember the birth of our children. On the morning of the day that Thea was born, Beth and I went to visit a church friend at Martha Jefferson Hospital because she had just given birth to a son. On the way back home from the visit, Beth’s water broke, and I turned the car around and hurried back to Beth’s obstetrician. Thankfully, his office was right across the street from Martha Jefferson Hospital (the old one on Locust Ave.), and he immediately admitted Beth to a room. The nurses at the birthing wing were surprised to see Beth again, this time sitting in a wheelchair and in full labor! An hour or so after we casually visited our friend’s new baby, we had one of our own!

For me, that experience was chaotic and disorienting, as I felt like a helpless bystander in a whirlwind of activity. I tried to support Beth the best that I could, but there was little that I could do. Beth’s labor came so quickly, she didn’t time for an epidural. So she experienced the full labor and the full pain of childbirth. But when the nurse brought Thea into the room for Beth to hold in her arms for the first time, we saw that living miracle and we knew that our lives would never be the same.

Little did we realize just how much our lives would change! read on

Responding to a Wake-Up Call

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

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

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

There are also some exciting new developments.  read on