“More Than We Need”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

“Breaking Down Walls and Building Bridges”

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

AspiringTearWallsBuildBridges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

“I Am No Prophet”

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

AmosTheProphet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

“Sacred Stones”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stealing a Miracle”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

“Conquering Giants”

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

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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.

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