A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
June 22, 2014.
This morning’s New Testament lesson from Matthew is a challenging word. I didn’t choose it. It was the assigned Gospel lesson for today in the Revised Common Lectionary. This passage is a hard teaching of Jesus that challenges my tendency to see him solely in comforting, pastoral terms. But Jesus declares some sobering realities to his disciples. In the beginning of this chapter, Jesus had just sent out his twelve disciples to the nearby Jewish towns and villages on a mission of preaching and healing. Gone were the comforting days when these students were nestled in the cocoon of Jesus’ protective care, being fed by Jesus, watching and learning from Jesus their teacher. Now, Jesus is pushing his students out into the world, and Jesus is preparing them to face resistance and persecution as a result of the mission. This resistance will come not just from outside, from those who are not yet believers. No, the resistance may also come from within, from family members, and yes, even from themselves. Many times, “resistance” is too strong a word. “Concern” might better describe the feelings of those who need more information, who need greater clarity before going on mission. After all, Jesus himself advised his followers to “count the cost” before embarking on an important venture.
In the past couple of weeks, I have received comments and thoughts from some of you regarding my idea of launching a second service for the purpose of reaching out to the university community. Thanks to your input, I’ve come to realize that I need to explain and clarify more about what I’m proposing. Allow me to offer these thoughts for your consideration.
First of all, I’ve been studying and praying about the possibility of a second service even before I left for Farmville. I remember having conversations about it with Kevin Holland, our former music minister, back in 1999. Even then, we were thinking about how to offer another expression of worship to minister to the university community without replicating what other churches were already doing.
Therefore, secondly, this second worship service that I’m proposing will not be “contemporary,” similar to those offered by other churches. It will be more of a “creative” service that seeks to engage all ages. It will not feature a rock band. Instead, it will embrace a broad variety of musical styles. For example, the music of one service might have more of an African vibe, while another service might feature jazz music or the more contemplative rhythms of a Taizé service. It will be more interactive and dialogical, using a variety of elements to engage worshippers in all five senses. For example, one service might feature a map of the Charlottesville and Albemarle county in which worshippers are invited to place pins on the map (perhaps on our schools, on specific homes and neighborhoods, etc.) where we pray for God’s work of healing and wholeness. Another service might invite worshippers to an exercise of “praying in colors” just like the way Lynn Martin taught us on a Wednesday night several months ago. While I will take the lead to plan and preach in that service, it is my hope that Phil Woodson will serve as the Director of Creative Arts in this alternative service, to lead in the music and other elements to complement the major themes. While we at UBC think of Phil as a youth minister, he actually has greater experience – nearly a decade – of teaching music and directing music in churches.
Thirdly, we will focus on a segment of the university community that is currently underserved by churches. During my first month back at UBC, I had lunch with UBC’s longtime friend John Chandler, and as we walked down to the Corner, John said, “All these years, UBC has talked about ministry to the university (namely the grounds), but have you noticed that what stands between the grounds and the church is UVA’s medical center?” That comment stuck in my mind and I began praying about his words even as a new children’s hospital was being built across the church.
I grew excited when earlier this year, Will Brown, who is completing his second year as a chaplaincy resident at UVA medical center, began a conversation with me about being ordained at UBC. As part of that conversation, we began discussing whether it might be possible for him to serve as a ministry resident here. In his work as a chaplain resident, he sees a need for a support system outside the workplace for the nurses and staff at the hospital. In general, that segment of the university community seems to be under-served by the local churches in town, and UBC is strategically situated both in our physical location and with our members who work in the hospital to serve this population. In his role as ministry resident here, Will can help us clarify the specific needs of staff and patients that UBC can appropriately meet. His training can help us launch support groups for nurses and staff, and also for parents of sick or dying children, or those who are caring for aging parents with dementia. For those who can’t attend worship on Sunday mornings, Will Brown will use his theological training from Yale Divinity School to help me craft creative worship services with biblical and theological integrity, true to who we are as a moderate Baptist church. He will work to give birth to more small groups, by leading Bible studies and book studies to be held in places like coffee shops, apartments and homes during non-traditional times throughout the week. As a former member of Jubilate, our collegiate choir, Will also hopes to help strengthen that important ministry of our church.
Because of these developments, I now propose a two-year church-wide “mission trip,” not to China or Africa, but across West Main Street to the university hospital in order to share the good news of the love and healing of Jesus Christ, our savior and great physician. I propose that we commission and send Will Brown and Phil Woodson to serve as our lead missionaries. This is a two-year experiment, not necessarily a “permanent hire” of new staff persons. Our current staff ministers, Alba Beasley and Bob Badgett are totally on board, and they both have told me that they will provide support and leadership toward this new venture in whatever ways they can. In two years, the church can decide whether this is working or not. If not, the church can stop this experiment, and go in a new direction. Furthermore, there will be periodic assessments of this new venture, with the possibility of making changes before the two-year deadline.
While I am excited about this possibility, Jesus reminds us today that there is a cost. I’m not talking about money, because I believe UBC has the financial resources and capacity to fund this two-year venture. I’m talking about the cost of discipleship, the cost of obedience. I personally would have preferred Jesus telling me that the Christian life is always filled with comfort and success, that obedience to Christ’s Great Commission will always be met with great enthusiasm, and that fruitful ministry never requires us to let go of cherished treasures. But that is not the biblical Gospel. According to writer Mike Regele, at the core of Jesus’ message is the insistence that unless there is first a death, there can be no life. … Unless we are willing to die to self, we cannot know our true selves; unless we die, we cannot discover the life of God.
Just as Jesus was honest with his disciples about the challenges they would face when he sent them on their mission trip, I want to be honest with you about the challenges we will face if we decide to go on our two-year mission trip. With the birth of a second service, the attendance in our Sunday morning service will likely drop at first, as some of our members may decide to attend the second service. On the one hand, I’ve had a number of people tell me, “I love our traditional service – and I’ll continue to attend it. But I would be interested in and would want to support the new service, too.” On the other hand, some members may decide that the new service better fits their needs or schedule, and that would be a loss for the traditional service. However, I hope we will focus more on our mission than on our sense of loss. We can share the love of Christ to more people with two services than we ever could with one. Over a decade ago, when Jack Averill started a new Sunday morning Bible study class, Don and Lynne Gardner and Jennings and Shirley Wagoner intentionally volunteered to leave their Koinonia class in order to help start the Seeker’s Class. God bless the Gardners and Wagoners for their sense of mission. God bless the Koinonia Class for their generosity. God bless UBC because there are now more people in those two classes than there were in just one class at the time of the change.
Another challenge: if the second service succeeds, then there is a possibility that UBC may feel like two different congregations instead of one despite all our efforts to integrate the two worshipping communities. If that happens, it will signal a death in the way we’ve been a church family, and it will birth a new and different way in which we will relate as a church family.
Last weekend, I officiated in a wedding in which the bride will move out of her parents’ home in Richmond to establish a new household with her husband in Martinsville. Was that a death in the way the bride and her parents have been as a family? You bet. Will they still be family? Yes, but in a new way. What would you think of the bride’s parents if they said, “Honey, you can’t get married because that’ll mean we won’t be together in the same house anymore”?
In 2005, while I was interviewing with Farmville Baptist, I was also interviewing with a church in St. Louis, where my parents live. During this process, I began to feel a leaning more toward Farmville, and I gingerly told my parents about it. “Mom and Dad,” I said, “I would love to live closer to you, but I think God is calling me to Farmville, Virginia.” I will never forget how my Mom responded. “Son,” she said, “we would love for you to live closer to us! But you need to follow where Jesus is leading you. Your Daddy and I will be OK. You need to follow God’s calling.” On that day, my Mom declared her ultimate allegiance as a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said: “Anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Because of God’s mission and UBC’s call on my life, I see my parents and my sister and her family no more than twice a year, but does that mean we are no longer family? No. It just means that I have a larger family here in Charlottesville who also loves me and cares for me. Jesus reminds me: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” I continue to count the cost of following Jesus, but I’ve also experienced deep joy in obedience to God’s call.
We serve a God who calls us to die, because we follow God’s son who chose to carry his cross and die on it. Before Jesus was arrested, He prayed to God at the Garden of Gethsemane, “If it is your will, take this cup of death from me. Yet, not my will but yours be done.” If Jesus chose his cross, how can his students think we’re above our teacher and can refuse our cross?
As Christians, our cross is not the unavoidable suffering that is part of the human condition. Our cross is not a challenging relationship, our failing health, or our grief over loved ones. No, our cross is the deaths that we choose to carry precisely because we strive to be faithful to Christ and his commission. But there is good news. As Christians, we believe that death does not have the last word. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have hope that in our deaths, there is also a rebirth, a resurrection into a new age in this life and not just the next. That’s why Jesus told his disciples: “Do not be afraid.”
Dorothy Bernard once said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Before we decide whether we should have the courage to make these changes at UBC, let’s start by saying our prayers. Pray and ask whether God is calling us to be on mission to the university hospital community. Pray and ask for the courage to follow Jesus and die to ourselves – whether on this venture or in another way that God will show us. Pray that we will have the grace to lose our lives for Christ’s sake, just as Christ lost his life for our sake. Pray that we may we follow Jesus through death to rebirth and resurrection, for the sake of University Baptist, but even more importantly, for the sake of God’s kingdom. Amen.
 Mike Regele with Mark Schulz, Death of the Church, p. 16-17.