A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on September 23, 2012.
In the past several weeks, many people have asked me this question: “So, how was your move? Are you settling into your home and Charlottesville?” I tell them that our transition is going well, although sometimes it is surprising how a move of a mere seventy miles back to a familiar place can still cause such disorientation and adjustments. While there are many things that are still the same in the church office, I’ve found that there are so many new things that I have to learn. For example, it took me three days to realize that the annoying blinking red light on my phone was actually a signal that I had voicemail! It then took me thirty minutes to figure out the code to access my voicemail. In addition to new things that I have to learn, there are also things that I have to unlearn. During the first couple of days, when I entered the church office suite, I found myself in auto-pilot mode walking to Mr. Bob’s office, because that was originally my space. I’ve also noticed that I’ve been saying “Farmville Baptist Church” instead of “University Baptist Church.” Old habits are hard to break! I’ve still got a lot of learning and unlearning to do! And with my in-laws moving into the basement apartment of our house at the end of this week, I suspect there will be a lot more learning and unlearning for my in-laws . . . and for us! It will be an interesting journey for our family in the coming weeks! Pray for us!
Journeys. Our lives are full of journeys. Sometimes they are physical journeys, like moving away to a new community for a job, for schooling, for a relationship. Or moving back home after schooling, after a failed relationship, or in order to care for an aging parent. Sometimes these journeys are temporary. Other times they are permanent.
Some journeys are the result of deliberate choice. We choose to move step-by-step into the journeys of college, of getting that first job, of marriage and of parenthood. As Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Other journeys are forced upon us. We do not choose the journeys of being laid off, of catastrophic illness, and of losing a loved one. We do not choose the journeys of growing up and trying to figure out who we are, and journeys of growing old and trying to cope with our declining capabilities. In these instances, we might better relate to this proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a flat tire and an empty gas tank.”
All these journeys, whether they are physical or not, whether they are chosen or not, are part of life. In our Old Testament lesson this morning, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is with us on our human journeys. Isaiah chapter forty-three was part of a prophecy of hope focusing on the return of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon. The people of God had strayed away from God, and as a consequence, they were conquered by Babylon and dragged into exile. The Israelites were forced on a physical journey away from home as a consequence of their spiritual journey away from God. But in the midst of this dire and seemingly hopeless situation, in the midst of this painful time, God spoke a new word of grace and affection through the prophet: “But now, this is what the LORD says–He who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”
We are beings formed by God for relationship; God knows and summons us by name because we belong to God. As such, we are created to journey with God. That all sounds good, but how does this actually play out in our everyday lives? Of course, we can journey with God by reading our Bible, and having a regular time of devotion and prayer with God. Those individual disciplines are time-honored and crucial, but I must confess that I struggle with having a regular time of individual Bible reading and prayer. Just as with dieting and exercise, I have the best intentions in the world, but if left to myself, you would more likely find me eating a jelly-filled donut while lying on my couch than reading the Bible or kneeling in prayer! My journey with God needs other people to encourage me and hold me accountable. In other words, my individual journey with God takes place in community, in church.
When Beth and I first visited University Baptist Church in 1993, I was 27 years old and a grad student at UVA. While we appreciated the preaching and the music in worship, what led us to join the church was the group of young adults who welcomed us into their community. We shared meals and had Bible study in each other’s homes and apartments, we organized social outings and we participated in service projects as a group. No staff ministers were hired to plan events for us; we did everything ourselves. We opened our lives to each other, and in the process, we grew in our Christian faith and we grew in Christian community. We learned how to journey with God even as we learned how to journey with one another.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. As in any group, we learned to deal with different personalities, to offer patience and grace to some, and to receive patience and grace from others. We celebrated when members of the group became parents, successfully defended their dissertations, received job offers, got promotions. We also mourned and grieved when there was a miscarriage, when couples moved away, when a marriage dissolved. In the midst of the ups and downs of our life journeys, this group – and other groups and individuals of all ages in this congregation – became our family of faith. I still remember how this church journeyed with Beth and me when I was struggling to work on my dissertation amidst my responsibilities at church and at home. A couple mornings a week, I would bring two-year old Wesley to the church nursery, and a group of you would take turns babysitting him, giving me time to do church work and school work. I thank God for this congregation in the ways you have been an extended family to me and my family. I thank God for all of you who walked alongside us, encouraged us in our faith, challenged us to follow Jesus, and supported us through so many changes and stages of our family’s life journey.
That experience of shared Christian community radically shaped my understanding of what it means to journey with God. I learned that the measure of a church is not necessarily tied to the number of people attending a worship gathering if those people were strangers to each other. Therefore, as your pastor, I want to grow and nurture communities of faith here, not just for our university students and young adults, but also for our children, our youth, our married and unmarried adults, our median adults, our senior adults. My prayer is that we become a place where no matter what stage of life’s journey you are in, there is a group of people who knows your name and loves you deeply in Christ.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Following Jesus does not guarantee that God will spare us the calamities of life. Instead, we are assured of God’s presence and care in the midst of the ups and downs of our life’s journey. And the way God’s presence is most tangibly expressed is through God’s people serving as God’s hands and feet. Who amongst us have a heart for walking alongside children and youth and helping them grow in faith? Who would like to adopt university students and provide them with a “home away from home” during their years in Charlottesville? Are there any youth who would like an extra grandparent, and are there any senior adults who would like extra grandchildren to love and to spoil? Who amongst us would like to invest in the lives of our young adults and young parents in the same way that many of you did for Beth and me almost twenty years ago? Who among our university students and young adults would like to be a part of an extended family here at UBC? If God’s Spirit is leading you to consider ways to journey with others in this congregation, please let me know in the coming days and weeks.
Journeying with one another in Christ is a powerful way of being church. Hear now afresh God’s words as spoken through Christ’s Church: This is what the Lord says, the God who created you, the God who formed you. “Fear not, for God has redeemed you; God has summoned you by name; you are God’s own. When you pass through the waters of failing health, God and we will be with you. When you pass through the rivers of broken relationships and loneliness, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire of uncertain times and loss, you will not be burned. You are precious and honored in God’s sight; God loves you and we love you.”
This is what I believe the church is created to be – a community of believers who are committed to journey with one another in following Christ. I look forward to this journey – with you and with our Lord Jesus Christ – in the months and years to come. Amen.