“Stealing a Miracle”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

“Conquering Giants”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

 

 

“Thankful Heart”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, June 7, 2015
Taken from Psalm 138

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There is an age-old question:  which came first, the chicken, or the egg?  Today, I’m going to ask a similar question – which comes first, happiness or gratitude? We might think that this is an unsolvable riddle, but more and more research is showing that thankfulness or gratefulness comes first.  It is one of the keys to being happy. Last year, Brother David Steindl-Rast, an 88 year-old Catholic Benedictine monk, gave a presentation, a TED talk, called: “Want to be happy? Be grateful.”[1]

Stendl-Rast asserts that all of us want to be happy, but he considers this question of whether happiness or gratefulness comes first.  Most people think that first we have to be happy and then we will naturally be grateful.  But is that really true? Have you known people who have everything they need or and even more, and yet, they are not happy? We may also know people who have had lots of hardship and misfortune, but are deeply happy. Why? Because they are grateful.  According to Stendl-Rast, it is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.

“Grateful living is a spiritual practice,” said Steindl-Rast, and he came up with a method to help us live more gratefully.  He calls his method “Stop, Look, Go!”

Stop” is an invitation to slow down the hectic pace of our lives. We rush through life, and in doing so, we miss so many opportunities to savor the present. “This moment is the greatest gift imaginable; it offers us the opportunity to come fully alive here and now.” After returning home from an extended trip to Africa, Steindl-Rast marveled at turning a knob and seeing warm water coming out of a faucet, and flipping up a switch and have the whole room light up. So he put stickers on light switches and water faucets as “stop signs” to remind him to be grateful for the wonders of indoor plumbing and electricity.

When you stop, then the next step is “Look,” which is an invitation to open our eyes, ears, nose and all our senses, in order to become aware of countless gifts we used to take for granted, to enjoy what is given to us. What we take for granted doesn’t give us joy; it does nothing for us.

When we look, it can also open our hearts for the opportunity to help others and to make others happy. When we open our hearts to the opportunities, they invite us to “Go” and do something.  “Go” means to make full use of a given opportunity. “We do not show our gratitude by just saying ‘Thank you!’ but by doing something with the gift we receive.”

Our Old Testament lesson today is from the book of Psalms. In Psalm 138, we have what Professor Mary Lowe calls “one of the happiest psalms in the Hebrew Bible.” From my perspective, this psalm is happy because it is a heartfelt expression of gratefulness and thanks. This whole psalm is an exercise of “Stopping” in the midst of life to praise and give thanks for the loyal love and faithfulness of the Lord.

Once stopped, the psalmist looks around and names the countless gifts that the Lord has given…gifts of love and faithfulness, gifts of encouragement and inner strength, gifts of life and power even in the midst of deep trouble and wrathful enemies.

In this deep awareness of the good gifts of God, the psalmist takes the opportunity to go and worship the almighty God: “I sing your praise before all other gods. I bow toward your holy temple and thank your name for your loyal love and faithfulness.” You get a sense that out of this joyful witness, all the earth’s rulers are also led to give thanks and acknowledge the Lord’s glory. Happiness is contagious.

Yesterday morning, at our “Touch a Truck” event, I witnessed and experienced an abundance of happiness. The pictures we showed earlier this morning do not do justice to the positive energy of hundreds of people and young children enjoying a beautiful morning among lots of trucks and vehicles in our parking lot and across the street at the Children’s Hospital. But let me rewind a little bit to show you how we got here.

During the past year and a half, we took the time to stop in the midst of our hectic schedules to reflect on who we are as a church. In town hall meetings, deacon retreats, and informal conversations, we looked and identified the God-given gifts that we can be thankful for – our location, our wonderful church members, our identity as a university church, our facility, Will Brown and his experience as a hospital chaplain, and so many other gifts. With the completion of the Children’s Hospital across the street, we also saw opportunities to go and do something with the gifts God has given us. Through the leadership of Will Brown, we partnered with the Children’s Hospital and Shenanigans, and we three worked together in organizing this community-wide event. In talking to the volunteers and participants yesterday, everyone was very happy, with big smiles on their faces. And my heart was filled with thanks and gratefulness for how we were able to share the faithful love of Christ as UBC members wore their OIAM and Mission Madness T-shirts and welcomed all those who attended the event.

When was the last time you stopped, really stopped, to savor and reflect on the present?

What gifts, what blessings from God can you see, name, and give thanks for?

What opportunities beckon you to go and share those gifts with others?

As we now prepare for the Lord’s Supper this morning, let us stop and savor this present moment in communion with our Lord. As we take these elements offered to us, let us take the opportunity to come fully alive to the faithful, loving presence of Christ and to look and count our many blessings.  During moments of quiet reflection, let us approach the fount of every blessing and tune our hearts to sing God’s grace. Then, let us go and find opportunities to serve others with a thankful heart.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en#t-127495

“Spirit for All”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, May 24, 2015
Taken from Acts 2: 1-21

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Several years back, Jim Garrison, a dear friend of many of here at UBC, celebrated his 97th birthday. Right after his birthday, Jeannie Nye emailed us a picture that we’ve included in our bulletin insert. One glance at the picture and the first thing your eyes are drawn to is the ball of fire shooting out of 97 candles crammed on top of a birthday cake, burning like an inferno and dripping melted wax all over the chocolate icing. Behind the fireball of a cake, you could see Jim’s wife Ruth with her mouth wide open – it’s hard to tell whether in excitement or in horror – with her hands clutching the arms of her husband. Then you see the birthday boy with an amazed look in his eyes — and a fire extinguisher in his hands! I guess at that age, blowing out the candles on one’s birthday cake takes more than just a huff and a puff! I imagine it is also risky to have so many candles lit at one time . . . one false move and you might have more than just candles on fire!  Celebrating the birthday of a nonagenarian can be a dangerous thing! While Ruth has since passed away, Jim is now 102 and living with his family in Christiansburg.

Well, today is Pentecost Sunday, a day many Christian theologians describe as the birthday of the Church. It happened on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, a feast that Jews celebrated fifty days after the Passover to commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Jewish people from all over the world gathered at Jerusalem to celebrate this important festival.

On that particular Pentecost festival, we find the disciples of Jesus all huddled together in one place. It’s hard to understand why they were all together, isolating themselves from the festivities that were going on outside. Perhaps the disciples were happy just to stick to themselves and not bother with all those out-of-towners coming in to crash the party. Indeed, there were people from many different nationalities that day. Luke gave us a list. The Parthians, Medes and Elamites were people from the area now known as Iran, but also covering parts of Armenia, Iraq, eastern Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf of Saudi Arabia. Mesopotamia was located in modern-day Iraq. These people lived to the east and southeast of Judea. Then there were people from Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia—all located in present-day Turkey to the north of Judea. There were also people from Africa coming from Egypt and parts of Libya near Cyrene—all south and southwest of Judea. And then there were visitors from Rome and the Greek island of Crete, all northwest of Judea.

These people were literally from all corners of the known world, and historically, many of these people groups were not known as friends of God. In Jeremiah 49:36, the prophet Jeremiah pronounced God’s judgment on the Elamites: “I will bring against Elam the four winds from the four quarters of the heavens; I will scatter them to the four winds, and there will not be a nation where Elam’s exiles do not go.” In Titus 1:12, the apostle Paul wrote about the Cretans: “One of their own prophets said it best: The Cretans are liars from the womb, barking dogs, lazy bellies.”  Not exactly a compliment.  And we all know that the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt.

While we usually think of birthday parties as a pleasant and fun affair, so you could probably understand why these followers of Jesus might have decided just to have their own quiet party with people that they know and not bother with the Elamites, the Cretans, Libyans and Egyptians. However, God had other plans. Instead of all these foreigners coming in to crash the party, God’s Holy Spirit decided to crash the party. Instead of a quiet and safe little feast among friends, a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. Unlike Jim Garrison’s birthday cake, these disciples didn’t know what hit them, and they didn’t have a fire extinguisher handy. Like bees being smoked out of their hive, the fire and wind of the Holy Spirit drove the disciples out of their comfortable little house and into the streets, face to face with people radically different in culture, language and customs.

Once they were out among the crowds, out among those whom they thought had nothing in common with them, the disciples discovered something miraculous. They discovered that the Holy Spirit gifted them with the ability to speak in different languages. When the visitors from around the world heard the disciples speaking, they were surprised and confused because each one heard the disciples speaking in his or her own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?”—in other words, “Are not all these men just hillbillies? So how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”

But on that Pentecost day, these people from all nationalities, whether historically friends or foes, all of them heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. And while some mocked the disciples for speaking in what they thought was a drunken gibberish, others asked one another: “What does this mean?” And Peter took the opportunity to stand up and to explain to the crowd the significance of what was happening.

“These men are not drunk,” said Peter, “it’s only nine in the morning! Instead, this is the fulfillment of what was prophesized by the prophet Joel.” Joel recorded God’s promise long ago: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon ALL flesh.” The implication was that the barriers that once separated people from each other would be no more.  Gone is the racial barrier between Jews and Gentiles, for the Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh. Gone is the barrier of gender: for your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Gone is the barrier of age: your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Gone is the barrier of domination of one group over another, for God promised that even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  All people will receive and proclaim the Word of God. This will happen during the direst of days as described by the starkest imagery of the sun turning into darkness and the moon into blood. But even then, the people of God will not be without hope, for God promised that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

As you can see, this is big!  A new day is dawning!  A new age is coming!  A new people are being created!  As the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:7: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old is gone, the new has come!”

On that Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit came and didn’t make the one million people who were gathered from all over the world speak and understand Aramaic, the language of the disciples. The Holy Spirit didn’t cram those million visitors into the room where the disciples were staying.  No! The Holy Spirit, settled on the disciples and sent them out of the room to the people, and made them speak a different language so that the people who were gathered from all over the world could hear God’s good news in their own native language! And in doing so, they all worshipped God, because you see, God’s Spirit is for all.

At Pentecost, Peter declared that God’s Spirit was doing a new thing. God was giving birth to a new group of people called the Church which will witness to God’s love to all. The Church was birthed not in one ethnic group, with one language, and one culture. From its very beginning, the charter members of the Church included women and men, old and young, servants and masters from all nationalities and ethnicities. It would be made up of people who might have been enemies of God and with each other, but with the coming of God’s Spirit, all they had to do was to call upon the name of the Lord, and they would be saved and be included in God’s family. This was the Church’s founding DNA.

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a friend pastoring a small church who recounted the story of what happened after his church building burned down. In that conflagration, the building was razed to the ground, and nothing was salvageable. At first, the congregation was stunned, and they didn’t know what to do. But then something miraculous happened. Forced out of their building, the members of that church began to spend more time with each other and with their neighbors. They held Bible studies and prayer meetings in homes, at the local coffee shop, at the park, in the community library, and they began connecting with people whom they never knew before. They discovered that despite their differences, they all shared similar struggles, anxieties and fears, and they began to support each other and serve others. A fresh wind was blowing across that congregation and after a several years, they sold their old location and bought land at the outskirts of town and built a new worship center. On the first Sunday that they worshiped in their new space, they discovered that their membership had grown during the time when they were “homeless,” and now they had a revitalized sense of mission to their community. My pastor friend said, “That fire was the best thing that happened to the congregation. It forced us out to connect with people in our community. As a result, I feel like our congregation has been reborn.” And I thought to myself, “So, maybe that’s what Pentecost looks like today.”

On this birthday of the Church, let us realize that the Spirit of God wants to crash our safe little parties. When the Holy Spirit shows up, you can bet that it won’t be safe, just like having ninety-seven candles lit up all at once on a cake. Now, I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit should literally set University Baptist on fire, but I do believe that the Holy Spirit wants to come down and rest on each of us with a fire-like passion to reach all peoples in our community, to go out to where they are instead of just inviting them to come into our space, and to speak their language instead of demanding that they learn our religious lingo. We can either let the fire of the Spirit lead us out of our room, or we can extinguish that fire and stay where we are.

On this Pentecost Sunday, may God’s Spirit light upon us so that we may be God’s people, sent out to proclaim the good news that God’s Spirit of salvation is being poured out for all!

Amen.

“Jesus’ Graduation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

“Abiding Love”

Preached by Rev. Rachel Johnson, May 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Shepherding Love”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Jesus what you are thinking and feeling right now.

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

Respond to Jesus’ invitation.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

“Jesus’ Hands and Feet”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the Messiah to whom we give witness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

“Show Me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Amen.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Easter Sunday – From Passion to Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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