Defining Moment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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