Between Alpha and Omega

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


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.



[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


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?”



[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.


The Extravagance of Two Coins

Preached by Michael Cheuk, November 8, 2015
Taken from  Mark 12:38-44


We are in the midst of our stewardship season here at University Baptist Church. A church’s stewardship season is like a public radio or public TV’s annual fund drive. Regular programming is interrupted and there is a sustained appeal for members to submit a monetary pledge. There are programs, building, and staff expenses that are directly supported by the contribution of members. During campaign drives, there are often gifts to be raffled off for those who pledge. Now, UBC does not have coffee mugs with Alba’s picture on it or handkerchiefs that I’ve prayed and cried over to give away, nor do we have religious relics from the Holy Land to raffle off. We do have testimonies and sermons during worship, letters being sent to members of the congregation, invitations for members and regular attenders to estimate their financial giving to UBC for the coming year. Let’s face it, for some, stewardship season in a church, like public radio or TV’s fund drives, is a time to be endured and not eagerly anticipated. And if we’re honest, we would change the channel and avoid all that money talk if we could.

This puts a preacher on the horns of a dilemma. One could avoid talking about money, but the institutional life of a church is dependent on the financial giving of its members and regular attenders. In fact, let’s name the elephant in the room. The lion share of congregational giving goes to pay for the salaries of the staff. Our livelihood and what we have to live on depend on your contributions. Which leads a preacher to the other horn of the dilemma. Talking about money in church by the preacher can be perceived as self-serving. So what to do?

Then there’s the Bible passage that is the assigned Gospel lesson in the lectionary for today. It is often described as the story of “the widow’s mite” m-i-t-e, which in Old English, literally refers to a small copper coin.[1] For the preacher, at first glance, this text offers the perfect scriptural basis for a sermon on giving. We have a scene in the Temple, where Jesus observed people putting money and offerings into the Temple treasury. According to Pete Peery, “Indeed the whole fall stewardship program that many congregations conduct is not unlike the role of the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem. That treasury was there to underwrite the religious [establishment] of that day, just as most stewardship programs are designed to do in our day.”[2]

The scene continues with many rich people throwing in large amounts of money. But then a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. We then read in Mark: Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” Many a preacher has walked down the well-traveled sermonic path of seeing Jesus praising the widow as a role model of sacrificial giving, and warning those who only give out of their abundance, presumably for public recognition and approval. Therefore, such a sermon concludes, we ought to follow in the example of the widow because she literally gave everything she had to live on for the Temple and its religious institution. Amen. End of sermon. Let’s now take up an offering!

Well, not so fast. For you see, there is much more to this story than meets the eye. The more I read the Gospel of Mark, the more I’m amazed by the literary skill and artistic mastery of the author of this book. Mark narrates this incident almost as a Rorschach test, the psychological test consisting of inkblots printed on cards. People taking the Rorshach test look at the inkblots and describe what they see in them. Similarly, how we see, describe, and interpret this story may say more about us than about what Jesus was trying to teach.

First notice what comes immediately before this incident with the widow in the Temple. Jesus warns against “the teachers of the law,” the religious professionals and leaders who run the Temple institution. They are all about themselves and the trappings of status, and “they devour widows’ houses.” Jesus warned that they will be punished. Immediately, the scene shifts to the Temple treasury with Jesus calling attention to a particular widow who is being devoured of everything she had to live on. When we read these two sections together, it is very doubtful that Jesus was commending the widow as a model for sacrificial giving. It is more likely that Jesus pointed her out as an illustration of the point he just made. The widow is a tragic example of how an inward-looking religious institution can suck the life out of people in order to maintain its outward trappings of wealth, status and power. Jesus was warning against religious leaders who benefit from a religious system that exploits the poor and the widows to sacrifice what little they have in order to accumulate wealth for themselves.

This alternative interpretation is bolstered by what comes immediately after this passage. In Mark chapter 13, as Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples marveled at it and said, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus replied, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Last May, when a group from UBC went to Israel, we visited Jerusalem. Jesus was right, not a stone of the actual Temple building was left standing. Buildings aside, from Jesus’ perspective, the widow gave all she had to an institution that was going to be utterly destroyed. Jesus did not recommend donating to the Temple, because its leaders were unjust and the Temple itself was not going to last.

So far, I’ve preached the worst stewardship sermon ever, probably in the history of Christendom. However, today’s passage from Mark does not allow me to preach a typical stewardship sermon. In today’s passage, Jesus is warning me and other church leaders all over the world to not be like the teachers of the law, seeking honor for ourselves, enjoying our affluence, all the while holding up the ideal of sacrifice. Jesus is challenging me and other leaders of churches all over the world in our stewardship of the money we receive from our congregants. This money, whether collected from the larger contributions of the wealthy or from the pennies of the poor, should not primarily be directed to meet the needs and aspirations of the institution. The maintenance of our church building, our programs, our staff salaries, and our budget are not the reason why we should give. We give in order to accomplish the mission that God has given to us – to minister to the university community and to the residents of the greater Charlottesville-Albemarle community. We give so that we can use our building and leverage our staff to equip disciples to serve as agents of Christ’s love and justice for those in need in our community. We give so that more people may be welcomed and included into our family of faith, not for our sake, but for the sake of a greater witness and ministry and mission. William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said: “The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

Who are these non-members we can benefit here in Charlottesville?  They are the university students, some of whom live in the apartments behind the church. They are the families of patients at the UVA medical center and the Battle Building across the street. They are the international students who come to our ESOL classes, or refugees who are re-settled in Charlottesville through the International Rescue Committee. They are the young families and their children who participate in our Pre-Kindergarten Playgroup every Wednesday morning. They are our Latino brothers and sisters who gather for Bible study and worship in our building every Sunday night. They are members of UVA Cancer Center’s support group that meet in our building every Tuesday afternoon. They are inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. They are UVA athletes we are exploring to adopt. They are the homeless men whom we shelter during the first two weeks in February. They are our friends and neighbors who possibly come to a UBC picnic or Fall Festival, or a special choir program or Noon Tunes – or who pass along a prayer request for us to remember through our prayer ministry. They are our radio listeners during worship. They are our regular attenders in our congregation, some of whom are only in Charlottesville for a few weeks or a few years before moving on to the next chapter of their lives. Most of these folks will never be members of UBC, but our church exists not only to serve the needs of our members, but also these, our neighbors.

In a moment, we will collect an offering. If Jesus were here worshipping with us this morning, watching us put our offerings in plates, what would he see? Would he see the money going primarily into our treasury to meet our own needs, or will he see the money directed outward toward our mission? Would he see us giving comfortably out of our abundance, or would he see us giving more meaningfully, even sacrificially?

And the widow in this story? Perhaps a helpful way to see her is if we understand her as the Christ-figure in this vignette. Remember, Jesus sets up this story by casting a critical eye on the Temple of his day—and then he predicts the Temple’s own destruction. In other words, this widow gave her livelihood to an institution that was not worthy of her sacrifice. And continuing in Mark’s gospel, just a few days after Jesus notices the widow, he gave his life to a world that was not worthy of his sacrifice. In the eyes of the Temple, the widow’s two coins did not seem like much, and yet, it was all she had. In the eyes of the world, the death of a Galilean peasant did not seem like much, and yet, it was all God had. For God so loved the world, this unworthy world, that He gave His one and only Son. In the eyes of God, how extravagant was the gift of Christ! And in the eyes of Christ, how extravagant were the widow’s two coins!

What are your two coins? What are the two coins that extravagantly represent all that you have, all that you are? It may literally be two pennies. But it does not have to be money. It may be a talent that others may think insignificant. It may be a passion that animates and drives you. If Jesus were here worshipping with us this morning, what two coins could you offer Him to further the mission of Christ?

During this stewardship season, may we ponder this question, and may we in faith worship God by our own offering of the extravagance of two coins.



[2] Pete Peery, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

New Beginnings!

Preached by Michael Cheuk and Lindsey Belt, November 1, 2015.
Taken from Revelation 21:1-6a.

ANewBeginning180x178 21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” 

Lindsey:  When I first read this text, probably like many of you, I was beyond confused on what I was going to be able to talk about. There are many images given but they all seemed to just confuse me more.

Michael: Yes, the book of Revelation can be quite confusing, and not just for young people. Throughout history, Bible scholars have had different interpretations of this book. Traditionally, the book of Revelation is understood as a letter written to seven different churches as they were facing tough times – either with persecution from Romans and Jews, and/or with the problem of being tempted to conform totally to the culture surrounding them in a way that led them astray from the way of Jesus.

Lindsey: As you’ve already noticed, this book contains a series of visions, with lots of symbolism or graphic images of different colored horses, angels, trumpets, beasts, dragons, etc. How appropriate for us to talk about this on the day after Halloween!  It’s like having a bad dream that eventually turns into a good dream. In our passage today, we get to the end of the dream, and we have the image of a bride, the images of a new heaven and a new earth, the image of alpha and omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, symbolizing the beginning and the end. We don’t have time to go over all these images and symbols. However, one theme that we can spend some time talking about is the theme of “New Beginnings.”

In verse 5 of this passage, He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” This can be frightening. Sometimes changes seem unnecessary and unwanted but God has a plan for your life and sometimes you just have to trust it. As some of you know, this week I was given the green light to graduate in June this year. A whole year earlier than planned. This means leaving home, western, my favorite church, my amazing youth peers. This is scary at times. It’s also a daunting task, taking on two new classes at night and giving up some free time to get my work done. But when I step onto the campus of the school I want to go to, I knew it was where God was calling me to go. He has gifted me with the ability to work with kids and I cannot wait to begin my teaching career in four years.

Michael: Lindsey, it is so interesting to hear you talking about graduating from high school. It is good to hear this from a student’s perspective, because I’m facing this from a parent’s perspective. Thea is also going to graduate from high school this year.  Many of you remember when she was born or how she ran around the church nursery in princess dresses or red rain boots, no matter how sunny it was outside. As she looks at colleges, some of you have asked me, “How can she have grown up so quickly?”  It’s a good question — when I do a wedding, I can often see this question almost written on the faces of the parents of the bride or groom.

We witness so many transitions and new beginnings for our children and the young people in our lives.  We watch them to go kindergarten or middle school or college or a new job or marriage.  These transitions are exciting — but they can also be a little scary. We ask ourselves, Are they ready to go off to college?  Will they remember to pay the rent?  Will they ever do their laundry?  And for the parents among us, we also ask ourselves questions, like how will I pay college tuition? What will life be like without all the energy that comes with teenagers and their activities and their friends?  After a marriage of their child, parents ask themselves, what will Thanksgiving or Christmas be like from now on?  At each of these transitions, we remind ourselves of God’s words to God’s people: Behold, all things will be new!

Lindsey: God came among His people and CHANGED their lives. But, what if the people couldn’t handle change, and looked at this “new beginning” as a bad thing? Are the people of God willing to open up their lives to the glorified, returning Jesus, and be willing for him to change their lives? If we aren’t prepared for change, we will never be transformed. As most of you know by now, the youth this summer went on an amazing mission trip to DC. It was one of the most monumental moments in my life but not because it was comfortable. Now comfortable is a hard word, in the dictionary it means more than adequate or sufficient. DC is not adequate. There is so much that is upsetting and disturbing on every corner. As we arrived at the Merrick Center the 100 kids that we worked with were rambunctiously crazy and didn’t want to listen. We learned quickly the children in 4th through 5th grade were already at least 3 grade levels behind. And there I realized my calling in this world. I realized that I needed to change the lives of kids in these heartbreaking situations. I wanted to be uncomfortable, God showed that even through change, he would guide in helping me share my gifts. It was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. There were many tears and heartbreaking moments that week but I would never trade the experience I had.

Michael: Lindsey, as I hear you share your story, I am reminded of these verses in our Revelation passage this morning: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” In the midst of all the changes in the our lives, in the midst of God making all things new, in the midst of new beginnings, we are reminded that God will be with us and be our God, and we will be God’s people. God will not abandon us.

“I am making everything new!” says the Lord, and yes, these words are trustworthy and true. As we live through life, no matter how young or old we are, the old order of things will pass away, whether we like it or not. Nothing is permanent and unchanging, other than God — and that’s true in our lives, in our families, in our workplaces, and even in our churches. Change is taking place all the time. Sometimes the new comes in gradually, in small steps, like our children growing up. Parents often don’t notice these changes taking place in their children day by day. Yet, when my Facebook friends see current pictures of Thea and Wesley, they all say, “Wow, look at how grown up they look!” Sometimes, the new slowly sneaks up on us. Other times, the new comes more quickly, in major transitions like a first day of kindergarten, a graduation, a marriage, a death. In all of these situations, it is totally appropriate to experience mixed emotions, both joy and sadness or loss, but God promises that ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” And in the new order of things, in these new beginnings, God promises that God will be with us, dwelling among us, whose faithfulness and love will endure forever.

As we begin our Stewardship emphasis this month, our theme is taken from Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Our hope is not in the past. Our hope is in God’s future, and during this season we are invited to prayerfully consider how we may invest our time, our talents, and our financial resources for the sake of God’s future, so that we may be a church where our children and our grandchildren will want to worship, lead, serve, grow, and witness. This morning, our youth invested their God-given time and talent and presented an offering of worship to God, drawing upon their experiences and their music. During this hour, we’ve been given a vision of not only our future, but also our present. They are already working and worshiping and serving alongside us, in ways that we can see and in other ways that we don’t even know about. May we, as spiritual parents and grandparents invest in their lives so the message of God’s love and grace can be heard and received by all generations.

Lindsey:  As we come to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, let us also remember that Jesus sacrificially offered himself for us, children of the Heavenly Father, so that we may have a hope and a future, so that we may have a new beginning.

Michael: Christ is the one who said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Christ is also the one who said, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Let us continue to worship this Christ, the One who made His dwelling among us in the past, the same One who will make His eternal dwelling among us, even as He makes all things new. Amen.


Once and For All


Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 25, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 7:23-28


Halloween is coming this Saturday. On Friday, the neighborhood surrounding UBC will be haunted by thousands of tiny ghosts, goblins, princesses, Star Wars Jedis and Storm troopers, in the annual rite of trick or treating on the UVA lawn. So this Friday, we’ll also have our Fall Festival right in our front parking lot from 4 to 7 pm, to welcome all those children (and their parents) to come and jump in our bouncy house, to play games, do crafts, etc. This is our way to be more visible and engaged with the young families in our neighborhood and in our city.

Halloween is a visible reminder of hauntings. In a deeper sense, Halloween is also a reminder that many of us are haunted. Oh, I do not mean that we are repeatedly visited by literal ghosts or spirits. Instead, many of us are haunted in the sense that we are repeatedly visited by painful past experiences, guilt, regrets and failures.  These hurtful memories seem to latch on to our consciousness. They remain with our spirits, and they will not let go.

Perhaps you are haunted by a past experience – a time you hurt someone, or a time you were hurt. A broken relationship, a traumatic event, a bitter argument.  For some people, an occasional trigger can bring them back into that moment, with all the anger, guilt, shame, or regret that can crash down like post-traumatic stress syndrome. “If only I hadn’t done this . . . if only I hadn’t said that . . .” These unwelcomed thoughts slip through the closed door of our consciousness like ghosts, and we can’t seem to exorcise them. They remain with us, directing fear and anger either against others or against own selves, accusing us, condemning us, belittling us, shaming us.

Today, we have psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, pastors and spiritual directors to help us address those things that still haunt us. Back in the day of Jesus, priests served a similar function, not just for individuals, but for the whole community. Indeed, around 1,500 years before Jesus, during the time of Moses, God instituted for the Hebrew people a system of sacrifice led by Moses’ brother Aaron, who served as the first high priest. In the Old Testament, in Leviticus 16, God gave instructions regarding how, one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to enter into the Most Holy Place of God and offer a sacrifice as a way to intercede or mediate between a holy God and a sinful and unholy people. The high priest was instructed to bring a bull and two goats as a special offering. The bull would be sacrificed to purge the sins of the priests and their households. The high priest would then draw lots to select one of the two goats to be sacrificed as a sin offering on behalf of the people. The high priest would then enter the most Holy Place to sprinkle the goat’s blood upon the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Finally, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the second goat while confessing all the sins of the people. The goat would then be driven out of the community and into the wilderness, carrying with it all the people’s sins away. That goat, that “scapegoat,” bore the blame for all that went wrong in the Israelite community the previous year.

I’m going to stop with the history lesson now, because I can tell that I’m already losing some of you. It is very hard for us to understand and relate to these practices because we are so far removed from the culture and religious practice of the ancient Hebrews. But in Jesus’ day, the Day of Atonement was the most holy day of the Jewish calendar, with a long-standing tradition of over 1,500 years! For generations, the people of God appeased the wrath of God when the high priest slaughtered the first goat. And for generations, the people of God were freed from the guilt, regrets, and failures of the previous year, when the second goat was physically and literally led out of the community and cast out into the wilderness. These worship rituals spoke powerfully to the Jewish people, and they communicated the forgiveness of God.

So imagine yourself in the congregation, listening to the Preacher of the book of Hebrews.  It would be a congregation steeped in this tradition of the priesthood and the Day of Atonement.  Imagine, then, hearing the Preacher say, “In the past, there have been many priests, but in these last days, we have a permanent priesthood in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.” In our old system, the Preacher continued, we had human priests, and they served their function well. But they were flawed. They weren’t able to meet everyone’s needs. They were imperfect. They were weak. They died. That’s why, in the old system, we had to keep on sacrificing year after year after year. We had to keep on scapegoating, over and over and over again. Yes, those rituals spoke to us, but we were still stuck in a cycle of always needing to sacrifice and to scapegoat, year in and year out, in order to appeal to the forgiveness of God.

But in these last days, the Preacher continues, God has spoken to us by his Son Jesus, and Jesus is now our high priest. While human priests die, Jesus always lives. While human priests deserve blame, Jesus is blameless. While human priests are impure, Jesus is pure. Jesus stooped down to be one of us; Jesus understands our weaknesses. Yet, Jesus did not sin. In that way, Jesus was set apart from the rest of humanity. Therefore, as the permanent, perfect high priest, Jesus does not need to offer sacrifices day after day. Indeed, Jesus, the pure and spotless lamb of God offered himself as the perfect sacrifice. Jesus is both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice, once and for all. The cycle is now broken. There’s no need to slaughter another animal sacrifice, and there’s no need to scapegoat anymore. Jesus has interceded for us, and we are fully forgiven by God.

Jesus the high priest intercedes for us so completely, that the next chapter of Hebrews promises not only that God will forgive us – it also says that God will no longer even remember our sins (Hebrews 8:12). That’s about as far away as possible from the way that many of us are haunted by our past guilt or grudges or regrets. The good news of Christianity is that Jesus our perfect and permanent high priest has completely bridged this gap between sinful people and a perfect God once and for all.

Once and for all, Jesus has offered us forgiveness of our sin.
Once and for all, those who are baptized in Christ are beloved children of God.
Once and for all, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Once and for all, death has been defeated by Christ on the cross.
Once and for all, a new creation is dawning through the resurrection of Christ.

The big question for today is this, “If God in Christ is so willing to forgive us, can we take the next step and accept God’s forgiveness, and live into a new resurrected life? Instead of continuing to be haunted, can we look our regrets or anger or mistakes in the eye, learn from them, make amends if necessary, and then leave them in our past?” Let’s invite Jesus not only to intercede with the God of the universe, but also in the recesses of our hearts.

I now invite you to join me in a litany to explore how God’s forgiveness is at work in our lives.  In the first part of the litany, we consider the hurts we’ve experienced at the hands of others.  At the end of each phrase, let us appeal to Jesus Christ our high priest to intercede for us as we join together in saying, “God, help me to forgive them.”

For those who have let me down . . . God, help me to forgive them.
For those who have been indifferent to me . . .
For those who have doubted me . . .
For those who have spoken wrongly to me. . .
For those who have wrongly accused me . . .
For those who have hurt me . .
For those who have walked away from me . . .

Now we begin to turn our attention on ourselves.  At the end of each phrase, let us appeal to Jesus Christ our high priest to intercede for us as we join together in saying, “God, help me to embrace your forgiveness.”

For the times when I have let others down . . . God, help me to embrace your forgiveness.
For the times when I have been indifferent to others . . .
For the times when I have doubted others . . .
For the times when I have spoken wrongly to others. . .
For the times when I have wrongly accused others . . .
For the times when I have hurt others . . .
For the times when I have walked away from others . . .

Now, hear these words of assurance adapted from the words of the Preacher of Hebrews:

There have been many priests (and pastors and ministers), but they are all temporary since they all die. But Jesus lives forever, and He is our high priest once and for all. Therefore Jesus is able to save completely those of us who come to God through Him, because Jesus always lives to intercede for us. Jesus truly meets our need—because He is holy, blameless, and pure. He offered Himself to be the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. On the cross, Jesus proclaimed: “It is finished,” once and for all. Therefore, let us go forth and live as a people who is forgiven and free.


The Right Person for the Job

Preached by Will Brown, October 18, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 5:1-10


We begin today with a piece of wisdom that I learned from our youth… Do you know how Moses makes his coffee? He brews it! Get it? Hebrews!

That’s a pretty terrible joke—or a pretty awesome joke—but in any case, today we are continuing our sermon series walking through the book of Hebrews. We’ve seen how God stoops down to us, and we’ve considered how the Word of God reads us like a book. Today we enter chapter 5, which considers the High Priest.

Now, if you find yourself beginning to tune out when we get to the subject of the high priest offering ritual sacrifices, that’s all right. True enough, this language can sometimes feel dated and foreign to us in our modern society, but this morning, let’s enter that world for a few minutes.

How is the priest described? I find it striking that we don’t hear about a lofty, honored official, wearing fancy clothes in an elite religious institution.  Instead, the priest is presented as someone who can relate to us. Listen again to verse two, which is the verse where we’re going to focus today:  “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.”  The priest understands that nobody is perfect—not even the priest! If God ever seemed too distant, too grand for us to live up to—here instead was the priest, flawed like the rest of us.  In very tangible ways, the office of priest was a bridge between a flawed, messy real world, and the purity, perfection, and holiness of God. That was the beauty of this religious system, and the reason that it worked? The priest was flawed, so he understood people’s struggles and dealt gently with them. The priest’s greatest strength was that he was weak.

Have you ever been in a job interview where the infamous question was asked: what is your biggest weakness? Interviewers often ask about strengths as well, but the question that always gets our attention is this one: what are your weaknesses?

I consulted a few websites to get some advice on how to answer this question.

  • suggests, “Handle it by minimizing your weakness and emphasizing your strengths.”
  • advises you to “include that you already have a plan to overcome this weakness through training or practice”
  • agrees: “Describe how you are already working to improve” and then “Move on!”

Each website offers some strategies for getting out of this question, but most agree that this is a trap! Give an answer that paints you in a positive light and pivot to something else. Granted, if you want to actually get a job, this is probably good advice. You probably don’t want to use this as a launching point into every shortcoming you see in yourself: “I’m so glad you asked! You know, I’m pretty disorganized, I’m usually late to things, and I really don’t work very well with other people, and I’m not very productive working independently…” This is not a good strategy; it’s much wiser to spend your job interview detailing your strengths, not your flaws.

But I wonder: when the interview is over, are we willing to take a closer look at those weaknesses? And today I don’t mean in the way that the career websites suggest, finding a way to “fix” them. Instead, I’d like for us today to consider something else: how might those weaknesses themselves, just as they are, be an advantage for us? Like the High Priest in our passage, who is able to “deal gently” with people because he relates to their struggles, are there ways that each of our unique weaknesses equip us in powerful ways?

Let me give you an example. When I was working as a chaplain at the hospital, one of my coworkers—I’ll call him Mark—might best be described as “scatterbrained.” Do you know anyone like that? You would always find his reading glasses and notebook on the table, or his coat left hanging on the chair (complete with coffee stains down the front).  His office desk was, well, a jungle of paper—not the kind of person one would ever accuse of being organized. And yet… when it came to interacting with people as a chaplain, Mark was able to enter instantly and completely into another person’s situation. Unencumbered by any internal clock nagging him to get to his next meeting on time, he always seemed completely committed to whoever was in the room with him. He was always available, forever on-call. Sure, he sometimes missed deadlines and arrived late to meetings, not really the guy you want running your business, but when you talked to him, the rest of the world seemed to disappear. You felt like you were the only person in the world who mattered to him. On the one hand, his disorganization was a “weakness,” but on the other hand, what did that enable him to do and to be? Might his weakness also be a strength? Full disclosure: my office desktop is currently a bit of a disaster, so perhaps I am finding rose-colored glasses for Mark and for me. But I also think there’s an important truth here.

I’ve heard it said that our weaknesses are the shadow side of our strengths. They are interconnected, two sides of the same coin. For every flaw we identify about ourselves, there is a positive attached on the same pole.  Just think about the words we use. Is someone pushy, or assertive? Are we obsessive, or determined? Arrogant, or confident? Lazy, or peaceful? It depends on how you look at it. And when it comes to our individual personality traits, it depends on how we look at ourselves.  My purpose in saying all of this is not to give some sort of “self-help” motivational speech. I’m not saying “look on the bright side,” or “we’re all perfect just the way we are.” All of us know we have ways we could be better. My friend Mark should probably work on his time-management skills, and all that job interview advice about showing progress on our weaknesses makes good sense.

But what I’m getting at today is that sometimes God has given us gifts of weakness. Our flaws may be the very things God is using to equip us for the unique ministry set before each one of us. Just like the high priest in Hebrews chapter 5, our greatest strength may be our weakness.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado, was recently interviewed by Terry Gross on the radio program “Fresh Air.” The interview came to the subject of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which often meet in church basements, and I found Nadia Bolz-Weber’s observation to be fascinating. She said that in many churches more people are talking honestly about their lives and their trust in God in the basements than in the sanctuaries. Too often, church can become a place where people put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine, when what so many people are desperately longing for is a place where they can be understood, accepted, and loved for who they are. For many, the only person who can give them that is someone else who’s been in their shoes: perhaps an AA sponsor who relates to their struggles, someone who discovered that their own “weaknesses” could be leveraged as a “strength,” putting them in a unique place to help someone only they could reach.

What are your weaknesses? Where are the broken, hurting parts of your life? Are there people your own struggles help you relate to? Might your challenges also be opportunities?

This happens all the time, here in our own congregation.  Two people, each grieving the loss of a loved one, share a hug in the hallway, with a kind word that means something more coming from someone else who knows what it’s like. Parents of preschoolers, who gather on Wednesday mornings in the nursery, share stories of their (well, our) frustrations and failings and exhaustion, along with the celebrations, finding a community of friends who’ve had the same struggles. People facing the challenges of aging, or caring for an aging parent, or struggling to fit in at school or adjust to living in a new place. In so many ways, we find ourselves connecting to others through the similar struggles we have endured, or the internal demons we have had to face.

Whatever your challenges may be, might God have placed you in this situation for a reason? Might our challenges bring new opportunities? And might our weaknesses be our strengths? The high priest “is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” We’ll continue with this text in a moment, but before we do, allow me to take this one step further. I encourage us each to keep thinking about how our individual weakness can be strengths, but I wonder how this might also be true for us as a congregation.

UBC is not a perfect church—and I’m not even sure what it would mean to be a “perfect church”—but we have our quirks and our flaws and imperfections. Now, of course, there are many things we need to improve, and the leadership of the church is actively working on that, but I’m sure you’ll agree this sermon is not really the place to go into these details. What intrigues me today is this question: what do our church’s weaknesses allow us to be and do?

Like an individual’s personality traits, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, do our congregational quirks also empower us in particular ways?

This is a larger question than I can answer alone, so let’s keep this conversation going in the months ahead. But for today, here’s one thing I’ve been thinking about. One of the challenges I’ve heard a lot is that we aren’t always clear about who we are, and we can end up feeling scattered. There are so many different projects, missions, and programs coordinated by various people within congregation: WMU, Sunday Bible Study classes, young adult group, Faith and Justice Committee, the Fellowship Committee, the staff, and others. With all that we’re doing, we aren’t always sure how to describe ourselves or say where we’re going. We have so many diverse opinions, theologies, and hopes for UBC. This can be a challenge for us, even a weakness, and I agree that we can do a much better job finding a cohesive vision (in fact, the deacons are discussing this very subject tomorrow night!). But even so, this characteristic of our congregation may also be a strength for us. We have an impressive diversity of passions, ideas, and dreams, and our church makes room for all of us. People who may not find a home in another church can find a place here. Whatever your passion may be, UBC can help you to serve God in that way. At our best, the church serve as a bridge: a bridge between conservative and progressive, red and blue, old and young, spiritual and seeking—perhaps even between people and God.

In that way, our church, and each one of us who calls UBC home, can be like the high priest in Hebrews chapter 5, doing our part to span the gap between human imperfection and divine holiness, equipped for this work by our own weakness.

That is a daunting task, I’ll admit. And maybe it’s an impossible one. The trouble with “leaning in” to our weakness is that we are… weak. Our imperfections might be used for good, but they are also proof that we, like any high priest, are not perfect.

But Hebrews chapter 5 does not end with verse 2. There is another bridge between us and God, a perfect priest who knows both humanity and divinity, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who understands what it’s like to be in our world and who has mercy on us. We take heart knowing that we are not alone. What grace it is to know that in the end, our success does not depend on our strengths, or our weaknesses! And so, we can risk the vulnerability of facing our own weakness because of our faith that God truly understands what it is like to be human like us. And when we do, we see that through our imperfections and challenges, God has prepared each of us to serve in a unique way.

A week ago, in this very room, I was talking with a church member who lives a good distance outside of Charlottesville, which makes it hard to be at every event and hard to participate in certain ways. But she had an idea that perhaps she could help with writing cards for our church members and cards for staff at the hospital, to show them that we care. What could be seen as a challenge (living at a farther distance) also presents an opportunity to serve in a different way.

At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned that talk about “priests” can be hard for us to relate to, but do you know what? As Baptists who affirm the “priesthood of all believers,” part of what we’re saying is that we are all priests, all trying to bridge that gap between broken humanity and perfect divinity, within ourselves and with everyone we encounter. Fortunately, it is not ultimately about us at all—are we good enough, do we know enough, can we do things the right way. It’s about God: recognizing the transformation God is working in us, and how God is using even our failings to equip us to serve in the ways that only we can.

So where has God called you? What gifts have you been given, yes, but not just that. What weaknesses has God given to you, and where do those enable you to serve in a unique way? Might it be that you—even imperfect you—are exactly the right person for the job?

Let us pray: Perfect God, thank you for making us imperfect and flawed. Give us the courage to face and embrace our weaknesses, that we might realize how perfectly we have been created to minister in a broken world.


The Word That Reads Us Like A Book

Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 11, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 4:12-16

Hebrews4 12-16

Sword drills. If you’re my age or older and you grew up Baptist, you probably know what I’m talking about. For those who don’t know, these were friendly church competitions in which students were told to “unsheathe” their swords, to “draw” them,  and then “charge” to compete to see who could find a particular Bible verse the quickest. Sword drills got their name partly from our passage in Hebrews today: “For the word of God is… sharper than any double-edged sword.”  We also find the “word” described as a sword in Ephesians, when we’re told to put on the full armor of God.

Christians have a long tradition of embracing this idea that the written word of God – the Bible – is a sword, a tool that can defend us and protect us.  Unfortunately, some people would also contend that Christians have used the Bible as a sword – to attack, to judge, and to divide. We Christians would do well to remember this this sword is perhaps best used on ourselves.

But we would also do well to remember that in Christian thinking, the “word of God” does not always refer to the sixty-six books we call the Bible. As we look at the book of Hebrews, we find that it is not describing the written word of God, but instead it refers to the living word of God, Jesus. Last Sunday, I mentioned that the book of Hebrews can be best understood as a sermon about the superiority of Jesus Christ. Last Sunday, the Preacher began his sermon with Jesus, the superior and glorious Word of God who stoops into the muck and mess of our human condition. Today, we continue with the Preacher’s sermon. In this section, he also starts with Jesus, the active and living Word of God who penetrates into the muck and messiness of our human condition to expose and judge the thoughts and attitudes of human hearts. Let’s take a moment to explore several examples of how Jesus, sword-like, cuts through to the heart of the matter.

In my first example, Jesus himself uses the imagery of the sword. In Matthew 10:34-37: Jesus told his disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. . . . Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus, the active and living Word of God came like a sword to expose and judge whether the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts are more committed to our own family than to God.

Next, in Jesus’ first sermon back in his hometown of Nazareth, in Luke 4, Jesus preached the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” So far so good. But then Jesus elaborated on this passage to say that the Lord also favored the very people that the Jews hated. Luke 4:28-29 continues, “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.” Jesus, the active and living Word of God came like a sword to expose and judge whether the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts are more committed to our own social and cultural group than to God.

Finally, according to the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus first preached: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus, the active and living Word of God came like a sword to expose and judge whether the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts are more committed to political powers other than to Kingdom of God.

In these three examples, Jesus gets straight to the heart of things, exploring whether our commitments to our family, our social groups, or political powers are stronger than to God. Time and again in his dealings with people, Jesus “cuts his people to the quick.” His insights and questions were sharper than any double-edged sword. He penetrated even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, fathers and sons, mother and daughters. Therefore, we do not read the Word of God like a book, making judgments upon it. Instead, the living Word of God reads us like a book, and nothing in all creation is hidden. When Jesus met the woman at the well in John 4, he displayed his full knowledge of her, pointing out that she’s had five previous husbands, and the man she was presently with was not her husband. When she returned to her people, she told them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”  Jesus is the living Word who reads us like a book.

In the process, Jesus functions like a sword, or shall I say, like a surgeon’s scalpel. He divides and cuts parts of our souls and spirits, joints and marrows that are diseased. Or to change the metaphor, the living Word of God comes like a prosecuting attorney to lay bare our lives, individually and as a society. He spreads out a full accounting of our lives before the eyes of the Divine Judge to whom we must give an account.

So far, this sermon by the Preacher of Hebrews is heavy, somber and serious. He wants his congregation to feel the weight of judgment. But that’s not the Preacher’s final word. The Preacher’s sermon turns on verse 14 with the word “Therefore.” “Therefore… we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God.” A priest is a “go-between” between God and God’s people. In a future sermon, I’ll talk more about the functions of the high priest, but one function of a priest is that of a “mediator,” a legal term for a person trained in resolving disputes between two or more parties. Jesus is the high priest who ascended into heaven to mediate between God and humanity. In other words, Jesus is not just the divine prosecutor; in faith, we profess that Jesus is also our divine defense attorney!

What’s special about Jesus as our high priest, or to use my metaphor, our divine defense attorney? Jesus is not only able to identify our weaknesses; he is also able to empathize with our weaknesses. There once was a farmer who had some puppies for sale. One day, a little boy came wanting to buy a puppy. The farmer pointed to the doghouse that was surrounded by a chain link fence. On the other side of the fence were four little balls of fur. When the boy pressed his face against the chain link fence, his eyes danced with delight as he saw each puppy yelping, jumping, licking at his face. But he also noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse. Slowly, another furry little ball appeared; this one noticeably smaller. In a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling out of the dog house toward the others, doing its best to catch up.

“I want that one,” the little boy said, pointing to the runt.

The farmer knelt down at the boy’s side and said, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.”

With that the little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. In doing so he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe. Looking back up at the farmer, he said, “You see sir, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.”

Empathy is the imaginative ability to step into the shoes of another to try and understand what they are feeling or perceiving. According to Roman Krznaric, ways that we can learn to be more empathetic include: 1) cultivating a curiosity about others and strangers, 2) focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us 3) immersing yourself in the role of somebody else for a period (like some pastors have done by living the life of a homeless person for a weekend) and 4) practicing the art of conversation where one actively and sensitively listens to others before making oneself vulnerable to share one’s own stories and pain. Krznaric argues that in the past, it was through ‘empathy campaigns’ – often spearheaded by Quakers – that took on slavery, prison reform, women’s rights and more. Today, we won’t be able to address current challenges if we don’t and can’t empathize with the victims of flooding or refugees in far away places, or closer to home, empathize with those in the “Black lives matter” movement and police officers, empathize with low-wage workers and high powered CEO’s.

Someone once said: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” To which someone else added, “After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes!” Harper Lee wrote this in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation teaches that God in Jesus, “climbed into human skin and walked around in it.” “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” says John 1:14. The Word of God reads us like a book, not only to uncover our shortcomings and failures, but also to understand fully our human condition, our back stories, and our perspectives. Jesus experienced human weakness, he underwent trials and temptations, he felt what we felt. Jesus walked a mile in our human shoes, but while he was tempted in every way, just as we are–he did not sin. Instead, Jesus our defense attorney takes our sin, guilt, shame, and our false allegiances and walks the second mile to make an appeal to God to offer us mercy and grace.

How did Jesus the Word of God show his empathy in his earthly ministry? We can find one example in John 8, when a group of religious leaders tried to trap Jesus by using a woman caught in adultery. The accusers dragged the woman out in public, uncovered her sin for all to see, and as she was laid bare before the eyes of Jesus, the accusers asked him: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Jesus then bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. John never tells us what Jesus wrote, but I imagine in this makeshift courtroom, Jesus the prosecuting attorney was reading this woman like a book, writing down all the sins that this woman had committed in her life. While Jesus was writing, the accusers kept questioning him for an answer. Jesus straightened up and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus then stooped down once more and wrote on the ground. Again, John doesn’t tell us what Jesus wrote. I now imagine Jesus the defense attorney reading the accusers like a book, and writing down all the sins they had committed in their lives, because John writes: “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. On the one hand, the divine prosecuting attorney didn’t throw the book (or a stone) at this woman. God’s judgment is gracious.

“Go and leave your life of sin,” Jesus said. On the other hand, the divine defense attorney didn’t let her off the hook either. God’s grace is judging.

The Preacher of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God who reads us like a book. This Word penetrates like a sword deep within us to expose and uncover our sin. This Word fully knows us but does not use that knowledge against us. This Word also fully empathizes with us in our weakness, walking that extra mile to serve as a go-between between us and God. That’s why we can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

In Christ, there is judgment but no condemnation. In Christ, there is freedom to go and leave our life of sin.





The God Who Stoops

Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 4, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

God-Who-StoopsWhat do you do when a congregation is struggling? How do you bolster a congregation’s faith? Well, that was exactly the problem that the book of Hebrews had to address. Professor Thomas Long says that while Bible scholars are not sure exactly who wrote this book nor exactly to whom, the book addresses a problem that many churches today can relate to: declining attendance and members who are tired and losing confidence. Professor Long also describes this book as more a “sermon” than a “letter,” and calls the author of this sermon, “the Preacher.”[1]

So imagine this Preacher leading worship in this congregation. As he (and during that time, this Preacher was surely a man), as he looked out, he saw many discouraged and weary faces. The congregation was going through hard times, and it needed a good word. When the time came for the Preacher to give a sermon, he slowly got up, and as he faced the congregation and felt the weight of their gaze and expectations, he began with these words: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers [our ancestors] by the prophets, but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.”

From the get-go, the Preacher reminded the congregation that while God had spoken effectively in the past to their ancestors by the prophets, in these last days, the full and final revelation of God has been spoken through God’s Son Jesus Christ. The good word that the congregation needed to hear was not through human words, but through the divine Word of God’s own Son. For you see, during times of hardship, it is tempting to get mired in the struggle, and to focus our gaze downward on our problems. The Preacher of Hebrews reminds us to lift our eyes and focus our gaze upward on the exalted Jesus Christ. The Preacher of Hebrews is bold and brash enough to think that hearing a word about the nature of Christ is the solution to the problem.

The Preacher makes staggering claims about the superior nature of Christ. Christ is God’s Son appointed heir of all things. God created the world through Christ. Christ is the reflection of God’s glory and radiance. Christ sustains all things by his powerful word, purifies sins, and was raised up to the right hand of God. Throughout this sermon, no matter what the question is, no matter who the Preacher is talking about, Jesus is always the better answer. It reminds me of all the questions children get asked in Sunday School or children’s sermons.

So a young preacher opened his children’s sermon one time with a riddle for the children: What’s brown, furry, and eats nuts? The children nervously look at one another, but none raise their hands. So the preacher continues, “You know… it runs up trees? And hops from branch to branch?” The children looked at one another uncomfortably until a brave soul raised a hand and said, “I know the answer has to be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me!”

This story is often used to suggest that not only in children’s sermons, but in most of church life, Christians tend to say that Jesus is the answer… to everything. And that’s certainly what the writer of today’s text seems to be suggesting. But for some of us, maybe those who have experienced hardships and disappointments, or those who may be a little jaundiced and cynical, we may not be as receptive in hearing from a preacher who simply asserts that Jesus is superior to everything. For some, such a high and exalted Jesus is just too distant and “perfect” to have much relevance in the muck and messiness of our everyday lives. For others, such claims of superiority sound like boastful bluster.

The Preacher in this passage had a very difficult task. In making a case for the superiority of Christ without making him unrelatable or too triumphant, the Preacher used a familiar passage from Psalm 8 to make his point. “It’s been testified somewhere,” says the Preacher, “what is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” This language comes from the beautiful poetry of Psalm 8, which goes on to assert that man – or humanity – is made a “little lower than the angels.” However, in the Hebrews passage, the Preacher is not referring to the exaltation of human beings in general, but to the exaltation of the one particular Man, Jesus Christ who has been crowned with glory and honor, so that everything is subject under Christ’s feet, and nothing is left outside of his control.

On Sunday mornings, we proclaim Christ’s superiority over all things. On Sunday mornings, we worship a vision of an exalted Christ. On Sunday mornings, we focus our gaze on the Christ who has everything under his feet, subject to his command. Amen and alleluia! But on Monday mornings, what do we see? On Monday mornings, we still see a world that is being torn apart by war. We still see a country in mourning for victims of violence. We still see people hurting and suffering and dying. We still see in so many ways where things are not what they ought to be. The Preacher of Hebrews recognized this, and with no triumphant bluster, he conceded, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him [the Christ].”

So what do we see? What we see is only part of the story. Professor Long writes: “When all is said and done, it is the gospel heard through the ear that turns out to hold the full truth. Yes, the Preacher says, Jesus did suffer. The whole world saw that. Yes, Jesus did exhibit the weakness of human flesh. Yes, Jesus did die, sharing the fate of all humanity. But those were only the pictures; listen to my words. Jesus was made lower than the angels for a little while, and this stooping into human history was for a distinct purpose. When one hears this full message of the gospel, one recognizes beyond mere sight that the season of Jesus’ suffering was a necessary segment of the arc of grace that curves finally to the place we cannot yet see, to the place of triumph where the Son is even now crowned with glory and honor.”[2] And when all is said and done, God in Christ was not too proud to stoop down in such a manner. Indeed, Jesus so identified with us, that he is not ashamed of calling us his brothers and sisters.

“In the rich verses of Hebrews, we are given a Jesus who embodies glory and humiliation, power and suffering, authority and servanthood, radical grace and radical obedience. Each side of the paradox makes the other side possible. In stunning symmetry, we find in Hebrews an utterly majestic and cosmic God [stooping down] to touch us—up close and personal.”[3] Therefore, the polarity of the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ is not a problem to be solved. Instead, it is a mystery that we must gently hold in tension.

It’s sometimes hard to hold two seemingly opposite things together. Take sunshine and rain. I know we need both, but I prefer sunshine. Given all the rain we’ve had this week, I’m so ready for sunshine! However, Lynn Martin recently taught me a lesson about holding them both together. She told me that, as a child, when she was outside on a sunny day, she always envisioned God with arms open wide, smiling and ready to embrace her. When it rained, she envisioned God stooping down and gently touching her. She loved being out in the rain, feeling water drops on her skin, and she still does. I guess Lynn has really felt God’s presence this week!

Another way to experience the presence of God is when we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At this supper, the exalted Son of God stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet so that we may have communion with him. Jesus was not ashamed to offer such a humble act of love, nor was he ashamed to experience the brokenness of the universal human condition through his broken body and shed blood. But he also said that as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” We may be struggling and we may be discouraged, we may even be sick and dying, but in Christ, death and suffering will not have the final word, not in our lives and not in our congregation. No, the final word is this: we worship a God who stoops, a God who comes down to us into the messiness of our humanity. This God died, but He was raised and ascended, and He will come back in order to raise us up to a newness of life. This is not a message of success and comfort; rather, it is a message of the glory of the cross and the power of the resurrection. It is a message that the Preacher of Hebrews wanted his congregation to hear, and it is a message that this preacher needs to hear and be reminded.

On this World Communion Sunday, Christians worldwide may eat different breads, and sing God’s praise with songs drawn from different countries, but we do so today acknowledging the one Source of our salvation, Jesus the Christ. As we remember the Word made flesh that was broken, and the slain Lamb who is now enthroned in glory, as we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, may God make us make us brothers and sisters of Christ and of one another.


[1] Thomas G. Long, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Hebrews, p. 3.

[2] Ibid., p. 38.

[3] Susan R. Andrews, “Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12,” Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

Healing Prayer

Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 27, 2015
Taken from James 5:13-20

FaithInAction-icon w textThis morning, I conclude my “faith in action” sermon series taken from the book of James. As I’ve mentioned in the Sundays before, James is a book that is full of straightforward and practical advice on how to live a good life, a life of faith. Faith for James is not just believing in the right things. Faith is doing the right things like loving our neighbors by looking after orphans and widows, treating the poor just as well as the rich, listening before speaking, and being careful with our words. In all of this, James is dispensing wisdom that comes as we draw near to God.

So how do we draw near to God? According to James, the answer is prayer. Prayer is the way we listen carefully and speak rightly to God. In fact, ethics professor (and my old UVA classmate) Mark Douglas writes, “wise speech simply is prayer. The wise speak always as if [they are speaking] before and to God.”[1] Can you imagine how we might change our speech if we were aware that each word is said in the presence of God?

For James, prayer and wisdom are inextricably linked. James begins his letter by stating in chapter 1 verse 5, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God (in other words, pray to God), who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” James now ends his letter by strongly encouraging Christians to pray in all circumstances. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Prayer takes many forms: some are spoken, some are silent, some are sung. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said, “When I cannot pray, I always sing.” Luther not only sang, but he also wrote thirty-seven hymns, the most famous being “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Hymns and spiritual songs have a powerful way of not only expressing our faith, but also strengthening our faith in both challenging and joyful times.

Just as authentic faith is a faith that works, and spiritual wisdom is a wisdom that works, for James, the prayer of faith is a prayer that works. “The prayer of faith will save the sick,” says James, “and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

I must confess, I struggle with these verses. This passage implies that if you have enough faith, your prayer can restore a sick person to health. I do believe that prayer can bring about healing, but if healing doesn’t occur, does that mean there wasn’t enough faith? Now, I must concede that sometimes our prayers, however sincere, may arise more from our own motives than from our submission to God’s will. This reminds me of the story of a little boy and his older sister who went to visit their grandma. As the little boy said his bedtime prayers, he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Please God, send me an iPad mini 4, and send me a Star Wars Jedi Master light saber.” His sister said, “Not so loud. For heaven’s sake, God isn’t deaf.” The little boy replied, “Yes, I know, but grandma is.”

I’ll say it again, I believe that prayers of faith can bring about healing, but I’ve also seen people of deep faith earnestly pray for a sick loved one, but physical healing does not take place. In those situations, if we were to tell a grieving person that the reason why their loved one wasn’t healed was because of their lack of faith, aren’t we just adding insult to their injury?

To make things even more challenging, this passage also seems to imply sickness is caused by sin. The ancient Hebrews definitely made a close connection between sickness and sin. Even Jesus was asked whether the man born blind was the result of his sin or the sin of his parents. However, as our medical knowledge has grown, we tend not to identify sickness with sin.

But even if various people might disagree about whether sin causes sickness, we perhaps can agree that both sin and sickness result in separation. Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that sickness, like sin, can separate individuals from their communities—illness by isolating a person physically from others, and wrongdoing by isolating a person socially. Sin and sickness both heighten the vulnerability of human beings. But instead of politely looking away, or separating ourselves, James is asking us to face our human vulnerabilities head on as a community.[2]

“Are any among you sick?” asks James. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” I don’t know about you, when I’m sick, my first thought is not to call the church deacons and have them come and pray and perform a healing ritual over me. When I’m sick, I’m weak. I’m in need. I’m dressed in my baggy pajamas. I’m not eager for people to see me in that vulnerable condition, and I wait until I’m better and more presentable, before even asking people to come and visit me. And yet, I’m always glad when people come. As Baptists, they may not come to anoint me with oil, but they will bring over a casserole, which in my mind is a Baptist anointing!

Similarly, I’ve noticed that people sometimes drop out of church or separate from others when there’s a personal or family crisis: they got divorced, someone got arrested, there’s been a moral failure or relational challenge. Oftentimes, they don’t feel like they can come to church until they’ve cleaned up their life, until they’re more morally presentable. They think church is for healthy people, for respectable people, for good people, and often times we in the church reinforce that idea, even though time and time again Jesus told us that he came for the sick and the sinners.

In our day and age, while we may have a hard time believing that sin causes sickness, we can understand how both sin and sickness cut us off from each other, and the healing God offers is a spiritual healing. I do believe that prayer of faith will save the sick. A physical cure may or may not take place, but in Christ, there will be a healing, a salvation, because the Lord will raise them up in a resurrection, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven by our merciful God. God offers this healing not just for an individual, God offers it for the community. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed,” says James.

Rachel Held Evans says that “at its best, the church functions much like a recovery group, a safe place where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people come together to speak difficult truths to one another. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned as individuals. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned corporately, as a people. Sometimes the truth is we’re hurting because of another person’s sin or as a result of forces beyond our control. Sometimes the truth is we’re just hurting, and we’re not even sure why. The practice of confession gives us the chance to admit to one another that we’re not okay, and then to seek healing, [forgiveness] and reconciliation together, in community.”[3]

James offers the illustration of the prophet Elijah as a model of powerful and effective prayer that took place on top of a mountain during an outward battle between Elijah versus the prophets of Baal. Perhaps for us today, a model of powerful and healing prayer may be what takes place weekly down in the basements of many churches during Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, where each participant confesses inward battles not only against sin, sickness and addiction, but also fear, doubts, injuries, trauma and pain. In this process, a healing community is created where each person no longer needs to wear a mask of goodness and respectability, but is free to show each other the places where he or she is broken and beloved.

This week, as Pope Francis visits the United States, I’m struck by how many people are drawn toward this man. But James would not be surprised, for here’s a man whose faith is shown by his actions. He isn’t polluted by the power and trappings of his position. He shows no partiality for the rich over the poor. Indeed, he looks after orphans and widows, he sneaks out at night to talk to the homeless, he embraces the handicapped and reminds the rich of our responsibility toward those on the periphery of life. He has offered words of blessing to gays and lesbians, words of forgiveness to women who have had abortions, and words of compassion to couples who are separated. As part of a Lenten tradition, he went to a jail and washed inmates feet – but for the first time, he included the feet of women and Muslims. As he did so, he publicly confessed, “Even I need to be cleansed by the Lord. And for this, pray during this Mass, so that the Lord also washes my filth also, so that I become more slave-like in the service of people as Jesus did.”[4] Here’s a man who has shown what it is like to love our neighbor as ourselves, and he inspires and challenges me to do the same. I believe his actions and his words have brought back many who have wandered away from the faith, and he has also gained the admiration of those who have no desire to join the faith, but still see something truthful and gracious in this man.

In this passage, James does not give us a theology of prayer. He does not give us any theories about how prayer works. The wisdom and power of prayer is not about what we believe about prayer, it is about whether we pray or not. Therefore, James gives us concrete things to do to make our lives a prayer.  He tells us to pray for one another in our suffering. He reminds us to sing songs to lift our spirits. He encourages us to call spiritual leaders to pray over us when we’re “sick” – weak, feeble, needy and poor. He tells us to anoint each other with oil or perform some other ritual that symbolizes love and care – like laying on of hands, or having a group hug, or bringing a casserole to someone who is sick. He reminds us to confess to one another and to forgive each other. When we do these things, we put our faith into action and have a greater chance to bring the wanderers back home. James calls us to make our lives a healing prayer.

As I end this sermon, I’d like to offer a prayer that is in keeping with the spirit of James and of Jesus. It is supposedly offered by a Christian Confederate soldier:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.[5]



[1] Mark Douglas, “James 5:13-20,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “James 5:13-20,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[3] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, p. 67-68.



Wisdom from Above

Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 20, 2015
Taken from James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

FaithInAction-icon w textThis morning, I continue my “faith in action” sermon series taken from the book of James. As I’ve mentioned in the Sundays before, James is a book that is full of straightforward and practical advice on how to live a good life, a life of faith. Faith for James is not just believing in the right things. Faith is doing the right things. Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves,” says James, “Do what it says.” And what are we to do? James mentions many things like looking after orphans, and widows, keeping oneself pure, not showing partiality for the rich over the poor, listening before speaking, and when speaking, being careful with our words. All of these actions can be summed up by the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself.

Throughout this book, James has been dispensing wisdom, and for James, wisdom is not found in our head, but in our behavior. Just as faith without works is dead, wisdom without works is just as dead. Wisdom is not just about having good ideas; it is about living good lives. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James. “Show by your good life,” he answers

What is the good life and how do we live it? In the world today, there is no lack of “wisdom” being dispensed to answer this question. Many times, we hear answers like this: The good life is getting ahead and being wealthy, powerful, and successful. This is a dog-eat-dog world that rewards the survival of the fittest, and earthly wisdom teaches that you have to look out for number one, don’t admit mistakes, don’t show weakness, promote yourself and squash the competition. We hear slogans like, “Have it your way,” “Might makes right,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” We see this earthly wisdom being displayed on TV shows, in political wrangling, in our work place, in our families and even in church. We also see the fruit of such earthly wisdom: disorder, conflicts, and disputes.

Contrast this earthly wisdom with spiritual wisdom from above. James writes: “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” We can spend a whole day going through each description of spiritual wisdom, but for our purpose this morning, I think it is enough to say that the spiritual wisdom that James describes has these characteristics: it is pure or holy, like God. It strives for peace or wholeness in ourselves and in our relationships. Wisdom from above is “willing to yield” or “willing and inclined to obey God.” It is full of mercy or good will toward those who are afflicted, and full of good fruit or good deeds. It is impartial or whole-hearted and undivided toward everyone. It is sincere, and not two-faced and doubled-minded. Bible scholars have noticed the similarity of James’ description of spiritual wisdom and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Wisdom from above is not just believing or thinking the right things. Wisdom from above is also doing the right thing in the right way, God’s way. Those living the way of wisdom from above will reap a harvest of personal integrity and wholeness.

Purity, peaceableness, gentleness, willing to yield, mercifulness, wholeheartedness and sincerity. These are the qualities of a good life born of wisdom from above. This seems like such common sense. Who would disagree with these qualities? Now, if only other people would wise up and live out these qualities, my life would be so much better!

There once was an old couple who had been married for a long time. The man feared that his wife wasn’t hearing as well as she used to and he thought she might need a hearing aid. Not quite sure how to approach her, he called the family doctor to discuss the problem. The doctor gave him a simple test that he could perform to give the doctor a better idea about her hearing loss. “Here’s what you do,” said the doctor, “stand about 40 feet away from her, and in a normal conversational speaking tone see if she hears you. If not, go to 30 feet, then 20 feet, and so on until you get a response.”

That evening, the wife is in the kitchen cooking dinner, and he was in the den. He said to himself, “I’m about 40 feet away, let’s see what happens.” In a normal tone he asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” No response.

So the husband moved closer to the kitchen, about 30 feet from his wife and repeats, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Still no response.

Next he moves into the dining room where he was about 20 feet from his wife and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Again he gets no response.

So, he walked up to the kitchen door, about 10 feet away. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Again there is no response.

So he walked right up behind her. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” 

The wife turns around and says, “Ralph, for the fifth time I’ve said, ‘chicken’!”[1]


When there are problems, conflicts and disputes, it is so tempting to think that the problem lies with other people. And sometimes, that may truly be. At other times, however, we are the ones with the hearing problems. Instead of trying to change others, it is a better use of our energy to look into our own lives. Perhaps our conflicts and disputes stem from cravings and desires that are at war within us. We want something that we do not have, we covet something that we can’t obtain, so we engage in disputes and conflicts. How many times have we seen small children fight and argue over one toy because both are not willing to let the other have it? Conflict occurs because both covet something they can’t obtain. But when one child decides, “OK, you can have it, I’ll play with something else,” the other child takes that toy and many times quickly loses interest in it. Even when we obtain the object of our desire, we will often find that it does not ultimately satisfy.

Wisdom from above is learning how God can help us to order our excessive desires, to order a cease-fire in the war that is raging inside us to obtain love, approval, worth, comfort, security and acceptance from other people and from our environment. The only way for that war to end within ourselves is to submit ourselves fully to God. If we don’t submit and surrender to God, we will have a devil of a time finding peace and wholeness in our lives.

Last Friday, several members of UBC and I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia’s General Assembly meeting. The theme was “Neighbours” and in the final worship service, we heard from our Baptist neighbor Jennifer Lau, Director of Global Discipleship at Canadian Baptist Ministries in Toronto, Canada. In her sermon, she mentioned Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, professor and writer. Her comments got me to thinking about Nouwen, who taught at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School in a span of 19 years. However, in 1986, he permanently left academia and went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Canada. Nouwen, this brilliant professor, spent the rest of his life living and learning from people that the world usually discounts and discards. The wisdom he gleaned from his neighbors has been recorded in many books and articles.

One famous Nouwen quote is this: “Our life is full of brokenness – broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives.”[2] In another place, Nouwen also wrote, “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.’ He said, ‘Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.’ It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with himself.”[3]

Wisdom from above is acknowledging that we are broken. We have broken relationships, we have broken promises, and we have broken expectations. Henri Nouwen continues to speak to this reality in his writing. I’ll quote and paraphrase at length from his writings here since I think he speaks directly to this.

Nouwen writes, “At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.

Nouwen continues, “As long as I keep running about asking: ‘Do you love me? Do you really love me’ I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with ‘ifs.’ The world says: ‘Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’ There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain ‘hooked’ to the world – trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”[4]

Nouwen offers us wise words. As I read them, I wonder, perhaps after all that’s said and done, wisdom from above can be boiled down to this: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Because you see, I can’t love my neighbor as myself, if I don’t love my true self as God loves my true self. I can’t love my neighbor if I’m still using my neighbor to give me the unconditional love that I crave. Only the unconditional love of God can satisfy the deepest craving of my heart, and free me from my anxious insecurities and disordered desires that are at war within me. Only the unconditional love of God can give me the spiritual wisdom from above to live a good life.

I’ll conclude today with some parting thoughts and questions from Nouwen. He says, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.” And so I offer you the questions that Nouwen often asked himself: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?”

May the wisdom from above draw us near to God and help us answer these questions this week.



[1] As told in Cathy L. Wray, The Perfect Blend Devotional (WestBow Press, 2014) pages 147-148.




Pages: 1 2 3 4