A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on January 27, 2013.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke the Gospel writer records Jesus’ first public address. Jesus had been baptized and successfully gone through his temptation. He was beginning his public ministry and news was already spreading like wildfire as Jesus taught in the synagogues in his home region of Galilee. As he entered the synagogue in Nazareth, heads turned as everyone recognized their homegrown boy who was making it big in the rabbinical speaking circuit. They asked him to read that morning’s scripture lesson, and then handed him the scroll.
Jesus took scroll of the book of Isaiah and rolled it open to chapter sixty-one and began reading: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Everyone in the synagogue recognized this text. It was a prophetic pronouncement of deliverance written during Judah’s captivity in the Babylonian empire. In that synagogue in Nazareth, the people listening to Jesus were themselves captive subjects of the Roman empire, and along comes this young rabbi who dared to read this revolutionary passage pronouncing good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind and the end of oppression. What would he say now? Expectant silence fell over the synagogue and the tension was so thick, you could have cut it with a knife. As all eyes and ears were fixed on him, Jesus began his sermon with the most outrageous opening sentence ever preached by a rabbi: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Really? How? Sure, this prophecy from Isaiah is good news to the oppressed and imprisoned, the blind and the suffering, whether back in Jesus’ day or now. There’s a part of me that is really inspired when I hear these words today – they sound so lovely, so filled with hope and justice! But frankly, when I look around, it is hard for me to see how this is fulfilled today. The cynical part in me actually wonders how these high-minded ideals could ever work in the “real world.”
For many scholars, this sermon represented Jesus’ “inaugural address” that pronounced the beginning of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. Just as President Obama’s inaugural address last Monday articulated the priorities and policies of his administration in the next four years, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus articulated the kind of world that God was bringing in through him. Jesus was articulating a world that is ultimately more real than the “real world” that we live in today. Jesus was articulating a world as God had originally intended and created, a world that is breaking-in even in the midst of the brokenness of our present world. Jesus was pronouncing the Good News that He was the fulfillment of the promise that Isaiah had spoken of so long ago. His very bodily presence is the Kingdom of God, the rule of God.
The question still remains, how can the opening words of Jesus’ inaugural address be a present reality? I look at Jesus’ words this way. Take marriage as an example. When the minister pronounced you “husband and wife,” you were objectively married in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the law. But it takes a lifetime to live fully into that reality. Just this last week, I had a conversation with a church member who has been married for over sixty years, and his wife is now succumbing to dementia. He said, “over sixty years ago, we promised to love each other in sickness and in health, and now I am living in the sickness part of our vows.”
In his ministry and in his life, Jesus lived out his mission to fulfill his inaugural address. Just as Jesus’ bodily presence is the Kingdom of God, the church has been commissioned to be the presence of Christ, the body of Christ, so to speak, in today’s world. We too have been given a mission to fulfill Jesus’ inaugural address. As a matter of fact, we can preach and announce the Good News until we’re blue in the face, but unless people today begin to see the Good News being fulfilled, being lived out, they will believe neither the message nor the messenger.
How can we be the presence of Christ and fulfill the good news of Jesus’ inaugural address? I’ve asked a church member to come this morning and share one way we can do that.
Next Saturday we begin two weeks of opening up Fellowship Hall each evening to about 45 homeless men who will have dinner and spend the night. At that time UBC becomes 45 units of temporary affordable housing.
PACEM (People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry) began 9 years ago as local churches partnered to house the homeless during the coldest parts of the winter. I remember when the program was presented to our congregation – I was not very much in favor of doing it. It just didn’t seem like something we should be doing – I saw it as a frightening, unpleasant, perhaps dangerous program for this church to undertake. I spoke out against it during that presentation. I could not make myself vote “yes” for it, but some little kernel of “mercy” in me wouldn’t let me vote “no.” So I took the honorable cowardly way out – I just didn’t vote. The rest of the church could vote to join the effort, but they couldn’t make me participate. They voted “yes.” I silently decided to do nothing.
During the first week of our participation that winter, my mission circle volunteered to serve dinner – okay, I can make a casserole – that doesn’t commit me to working with the homeless. Reluctantly, I agreed to serve the meal – there would be a table between me and this scary group of homeless men. I kept my eyes focused on the casserole and the plate I was serving. I was fine until one of the men said, “Hi. My name is Robert. What’s yours?” Eye contact. Exchange of names. My Comfort Zone was being challenged. After supper my Comfort Zone expanded further as I found myself helping distribute soap and shampoo and then talking to the men. I suddenly realized that my fear and resistance had been replaced by a realization that in some small way I could make their life a little better.
The second year of our participation with PACEM I volunteered to be in charge of the program – eight years now. This was not my plan – this was God’s plan. I came to understand what Jesus was telling his disciples in Matthew 25:37-40: 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'
Three years ago I received an email from Bruce Hunter, minister at Crossroads Community Church – partnered with us for past 5 years – after they had served a fried chicken dinner. “Just wanted to say “thank you” for the privilege of serving alongside you and the folks at UBC. We were blessed to be among you and the men you serve through PACEM. I’m convinced Jesus was wandering around there in your Fellowship Hall with a drumstick and a biscuit in his hand.”
One evening as I was moving around talking with the men, I passed the word that I would be back the next night with my sewing machine to do any clothing repair that might be needed. Michael brought me his backpack and asked if I could replace the broken zipper and sew up some holes in it. I told him that it looked like his backpack was beyond repair but that I would try to find him a replacement. I’ve done many things for people in the name of God – but I don’t do windows – and I don’t do roller coasters – and I don’t do zippers in backpacks. The next night I brought him a used backpack, large with lots of zippered compartments and in very good shape. It was black with the LL Bean label stitched in white thread on it. Michael seemed overwhelmed with such a wonderful gift – he gave me a big hug. The next evening when I came in, he jumped up and came to me with an excited request to follow him back to his cot. There he grabbed up his backpack and pointed to the LL Bean label where he had colored in the first “L” with a red marker. He announced that the red “L” was for “Lynn” since I had given him such a great backpack and he wanted to always remember me. Five years later Michael came by the church to see me – and show me the backpack -- the same backpack -- the same red “L.”
Most of the men are gentle, respectful, grateful, and are eager to have contact with those of us who are there to help them out. They want to sit and talk and tell their “story.” They want to take off their shoes and walk around in their sock feet. They want to take a shower, have a good meal, play a game of BINGO. They want to watch the Super Bowl. Buddy wanted to thank the volunteers who served dinner one night so he bought a box of Valentine candy to be shared among the volunteers.
I hear from volunteers all the time that they have been changed by their experience. One evening one of our youth came to me and said, “I just talked to a homeless man. And he was just like a regular man!” Volunteers always receive a blessing as they minister to these men, even in the smallest way.
I have discovered what PACEM is all about. PACEM – Latin for PEACE. The peace we feel when we are moving in the right direction………the peace we feel when we are walking with God…….. the peace we feel when we are doing God’s work and know that he is nodding his head in approval. This is not our work – this is God’s work. It is an awesome feeling when God uses us as individuals and as a church do his work. Our job is to position ourselves and open ourselves to allow God to work through us.
One of the most powerful moments of this program came one evening when one of the men stood up to give the blessing before the meal. He prayed for the people of University Baptist Church, he expressed thanks for the meal, and then he prayed for God to bless “those less fortunate than he was.” He asked God’s blessing on those who did not have a good meal and a warm place to sleep. This man was homeless, broke, out of work, carrying all his earthly possessions in a black plastic bag, but he felt “fortunate” because of the work of volunteers from this church. In 1 Peter 4:10 we are reminded “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” Every Christian has a gift that he has received from God, who takes these talents and abilities and directs them for his purposes. Providing a meal, donating socks, washing towels, transporting a load of sheets and blankets, spending the night, visiting with the men, setting up cots.
These homeless men are the ones Jesus was talking about in Matthew 22 when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These men are our neighbors . . . they are brothers of Christ and therefore our brothers. In the final days Jesus is not going to ask us how many committees we served on at church, how many hymns we know or how many scripture verses we can recite. He’s going to ask: Did you feed my people? Did you shelter my people? Did you visit my people? Did you experience the Peace of knowing that you were walking with me and doing my work?
I pray that each one of us will be able to answer with a resounding, “Yes.”
Our participation in PACEM is just one way for us to fulfill the good news of God’s Kingdom. Now PACEM itself is not the full solution to the systemic issue of homelessness in our area. We have members from our faith and justice committee looking into that issue right now in partnership with other churches. Also, PACEM may not be right for you, and that’s OK. But the question I invite you to ask of yourself is, “How can I be the presence of Christ and do my part in joining God’s mission?”
Jesus is saying to us this morning: “God’s Kingdom is at hand, waiting for us to reach out and touch it, and live into its fulfillment!” I encourage you therefore to trust Jesus’ message. Accept it as a gift. Live in its reality. Proclaim it to the world! Amen.