Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how certain biblical stories have crossed over into popular culture? If I were to use the phrase “David and Goliath,” for instance, even outside of church, most people would know I’m invoking a classic underdog story. Little guy defeats giant. And we love rooting for the little guy, right? Movie scripts and Sports Illustrated articles alike abound with underrated individuals rising to greatness. Who doesn’t love a story like that, and that’s how David’s story begins. Youngest son in a big family, watching the family’s sheep back at home while all his big brothers go off to war. Dad sends him as an errand boy to check on them and bring provisions and while he’s there he sees the entire Israelite army terrified of a giant named Goliath. And then it’s this kid - way too small to wear the armor King Saul offers him – who manages to bring Goliath down with a slingshot and a few smooth stones.
Unfortunately, the hero of that, more familiar David story became a real bully later on. Little Dave became a rich, powerful king. He got used to getting whatever he wanted. And that’s where he ran into trouble.
Think about it. From being told to stay home while the grown-ups go off to war, to parading through town as a great military hero. From chasing after a bunch of smelly sheep to striding through a palace in royal robes. From perhaps being picked on by his big brothers to commanding armies and ruling a nation.
They say it does something to a person—wealth, power, fame. And in David’s case, the former underdog began trampling others underfoot. Killing a guy off to steal his wife – that’s the villain’s role. But David? Brave, heroic David? What happened?
Turns out the narrator of 2 Samuel calls David out even before Bathsheba draws her bath. “In the spring of the year,” chapter 11 begins, “when kings go out to battle,” … “David rose from his couch” one afternoon and “was walking about on the roof.” That’s not just narrative filler. The author is making it clear: this king is shirking his responsibilities, sending the little people off to do his dirty work while he lounges around and gets into all kinds of trouble.
Enter Nathan. I’ve often wondered what the Old Testament prophets were like as kids. What kinds of qualities were modeled for them, or nurtured in them. What they were taught. Because how do you think Nathan learned to stand up to a powerful king like this? Don’t forget that as a prophet of the royal court, the king basically signs Nathan’s paycheck.
Carefully, deliberately, Nathan begins to tell this story, this parable. (I love that in the Veggie Tales version, he uses flannelgraph to get across his point.) Nathan tells the story so well that the king’s completely drawn in. Where is this rich man who stole the poor man’s only sheep?! We’ll string him up! We’ll make him pay! And then the punch line: “You are the man.” In Hebrew it only takes two words to say. No doubt two of the bravest words ever to cross Nathan’s lips. This guy you’re prepared to execute for the seriousness of his crime, your highness? Says Nathan: atah ha-ish. You’re the guy. You’re that bully. It’s you.
It interests me that the classical Old Testament prophets enter the scene just as Israel gets itself established enough to create a monarchy. Other figures earlier on are sometimes referred to as prophets, though they don’t function in quite the same way. But once Saul is anointed king, you need a Samuel. And once David trades in his slingshot for a crown, you need a Nathan. Why? Because even when it’s a former underdog in command, look what power can do. The hero has become the villain. David has essentially become Goliath. And when power corrupts like this, there had better be prophets around to point it out.
To be fair, just as David had trouble catching on that the story was about him, we might miss its directness too. It’s fun to identify with Dave the little guy. It’s significantly less fun to identify with David the giant. Powerful. Self-centered. Stepping on others to get what he wants. But sometimes, whether as individuals or as groups, I wonder if we’re the giant.
God knows it’s all too easy for a powerful, wealthy nation to expect the world to follow its agenda.
God knows it’s all too easy for those of us who already have plenty to want more, and to forget how little others have.
God knows if kings need prophets, so do presidents and senators, CEO’s and celebrities.
And God knows if they need prophets in Washington and Hollywood, we need them too.
God knows all of this, and that’s why in every age God raises up women and men to speak to us the painful truth: “It’s you.” To which we hopefully respond with repentance, like David owning up to our sin, asking God to forgive us for our selfishness, our blindness to the way our decisions affect the lives of others.
Of course, there’s another way to read ourselves into this story (ideally, I think, we’re challenged to read in both ways at once) – and that is to identify ourselves with the prophet.
What do prophets do, when power corrupts? We name it. In person in print, in flannelgraph if we need to, we make clear that things are not right.
And what else do prophets do, when power corrupts? We poke fun at it! Like the set-up of the David and Bathsheba story back in chapter 11. Only a complete joke of a king, in those days, would stay home lounging on his couch while his troops went off to war. Right here in the official history of David’s reign, blatant ridicule of the king for his selfish decision.
You may know that marvelous Eleanor Roosevelt quotation - “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I suppose the corollary is that no one should be allowed to feel superior without our consent either. So let’s not let the stand-up comics and political cartoonists have all the fun.
What do prophets do, when power corrupts? We take its cockiness down a peg or two. Biblical scholars believe the story of God creating Adam from the dust of the earth, the dirt under our feet, was written while David was king. What better time for a reminder that we are made of dust and to dust we shall return - than when Israel was at the height of its power, and its king felt on top of the world? It’s important that a ruler like David be told now and then that his feet still smell a bit, of sheep poop.
What do prophets do, when power corrupts? We call it like we see it. They say you’re not supposed to mention politics, money, or religion in polite conversation? I’m afraid if we’re going to talk like prophets, we won’t have a choice.
The good news is that we also won’t have to do it alone. The good news is that prophecy has gone communal since Nathan’s day! William Willimon notes that “the Hebrew prophets are often depicted as lonely people.” But when the early church gathered on Pentecost, just as the prophet Joel had foretold, God’s spirit was poured out on all flesh. Young and old alike caught visions and dreamed dreams. Sons and daughters started preachin’ up a storm. God’s spirit was poured out upon kids and senior citizens, upon underpaid maids and janitors, and suddenly those who never appeared on the pages of the New York Times, those who had never been asked to say a few words at the microphone, began to speak. “After Acts 2, prophecy is a group thing.” As Moses once blurted out to Joshua in the wilderness, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets!” “That day is now,” says Willimon. “Those prophets are us.” 
So we’d better not get too comfortable with power or wealth or privilege, whether our own or that of others.
In a world seemingly saturated with bullies abusing others to get their way, in a world without enough Nathans speaking the truth to power, where might God be nudging us? Where might God even be judging us? Informed by biblical stories such as the one we’ve read today, how is our story meant to unfold?
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
 William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, (taken from pages 250-259).
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last week we focused on the tabernacle of God, the holy tent in which God essentially camped out with the ancient Israelites on their way through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. So important was it to their theology that God moved around like this, in that God-tent, that it created a dilemma when King Solomon finally built a temple in Jerusalem years later. That’s where we picked up the story this morning, in I Kings 8.
As recently as the reign of Solomon’s father King David, who had also inquired about building a temple, God told David no, I don’t need a permanent home like that. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (2 Samuel 7:6) But David’s son Solomon finally gets the green light, and if you were to look back at the chapters immediately preceding our text for today, you would read of the new temple’s impressive scale, the quarried stone with which it’s constructed, walls entirely lined with elaborate carvings out of cedar overlaid with pure gold. You’d read about the elegant sculptures and vessels and furnishings of the temple, many of them made of gold as well. Temple, rather than tabernacle, would now be what Jonathan Alter calls “a terrestrial communications center for speaking with God.” And what a communications center it would be!
But even in Solomon’s prayer of dedication for this glorious temple, the tension is easy enough to spot. Did you hear him as he fell all over himself trying to put it into words? “God, I know you can’t possibly live here. You’re too big for heaven itself – there’s not a chance you could fit into this temple made with human hands. Yet I believe you will be here, that you will keep your eyes open toward this place day and night, sothat to pray here is to meet you in a particular way.” (paraphrase of 1 Kings 8:27-30)
Solomon’s walking a bit of a tightrope here. As we noted last week, a tabernacle is portable; it’s moveable. God camped out with the people of Israel in that worship-tent that was set up and torn down as they moved from place to place. So when Solomon builds a house for God – a temple made of solid materials like stone and wood and gold, located in a fixed spot – he wants to be clear: Yahweh hasn’t gotten stuck! God’s still on the move, temple or no temple. (Something that will be extremely important for them to remember years later when the temple itself is destroyed.)
Anywhere God is is holy. And God is everywhere. So does it make any difference where we worship God? No, not really. And yet…
And yet there clearly was something special about that temple in Jerusalem. Something about that space that was different from other spaces. Think about the amazing visions of God that would later take place in the temple, like the one the prophet Isaiah describes of the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, the hem or train of his robe filling the temple. (Isaiah 6) “If the portability of the tabernacle taught Israel that God was on the move … the majesty of the temple taught Israel that God was an awesome and holy presence.”
Nothing but the best would do, then, to equip this holy space for the worship of a holy God. If Solomon’s temple dedication prayer reminds us there ain’t no temple grand enough truly to house God (“even heaven and the highest heavens cannot contain you,” he says, “much less this house that I have built!”), then the magnificence of the temple’s construction conveys there ain’t no offering splendid enough for God’s sanctuary either.
There’s something about a sanctuary – whatever it’s particular architecture– that can speak to us of God’s transcendence. God’s otherness, that is. God’s mystery.
Have you ever had an experience of a particular space that is holy for you in a way others are not? Celtic Christians call them thin places, places where the veil between this world and the heavenly realm seems somehow easier to step through. A couple weeks ago we read about Moses herding his father-in-law’s sheep when he suddenly sees a burning bush and finds himself standing on holy ground. (Exodus 3:1-6) Earlier, in the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob falls asleep one night and has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder stretched from heaven to earth. “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it” Jacob says. This “is none other than the house of God,” he goes on, “and the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:10-17) Are their places in your life that have caused you to say “surely the Lord is here”?
In my own experience there’ve been several. There was St. Andrew’s Episcopal church in Albany, New York – the old grey stone building with the bright red doors – candles and colorful altar cloths and sung liturgy and kneelers in the pews … And there was a circle of rough-hewn logs on a hillside by a small camp lake in the Adirondack mountains, a space used for outdoor chapel services and campfire sing-alongs and, whenever I could manage it, for my own private prayers as well… There was the tiny unfurnished room with the worn Persian carpet downstairs at the Episcopal Student Center at college, where 10 or 12 of us would sing our hearts out every Sunday night before sharing a simple communion meal…There was Princeton University chapel, with its Gothic architecture and gorgeous stained glass windows depicting the great heroes of our faith… And there was Princeton Seminary chapel, with its clean white lines, stark simplicity, and perfectly clear windows, allowing me to worship while taking in a beautiful display of fall colors…
There was also the church to which I was ordained, Chestnut Grove Presbyterian in Phoenix, Maryland, and how wonderful to have two people here this morning who remember that day as well! If I went back even now I'm sure I'd be able to feel the Holy Spirit that was in our midst that day as I was privileged to be surrounded and supported by prayers and the laying on of hands at that moment of entering pastoral ministry.
And of course there is this sanctuary, whether in the joyful energy of Sunday morning worship or in the serenity of candlelight and “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve…or even on an ordinary weekday morning, when I come in here for other reasons (task oriented as ever) and find myself lingering, as if I’ve been waiting to exhale and been given a moment to breathe in the presence of God. Surely, the Lord is in this place.
If with Solomon our question for the day is whether it makes any difference where we worship God, again the answer is “no, not really” and “sure, it does” both at the same time.
Because – think about it - we do gather here as a community of faith to meet God. And when we’re lucky, (or should I say when we’re blessed or graced) we actually do. It may not be a knock-your-socks off moment like Isaiah had in the temple. It may not involve smoldering shrubbery or visions of angels a la Moses or Jacob. But I hope you experience a little of God’s mystery in this holy place. For at its best, “the space of worship vibrates with the potential of an encounter between God and humanity.”
As I approached Pledge Sunday this year with both temple and tabernacle in mind, I also found myself humbled by those ancient Israelites giving God, in God’s sanctuary, their very best. By Solomon’s day so much wealth was concentrated in the king’s hands that it appears he’s funding most of the operation, and he does so on an impressive scale. But did you know back in Exodus it was the whole congregation that brought in offerings to build the tabernacle? In Exodus 35 we read: “they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting and for all its service … all who were of a willing heart brought … all sorts of gold objects… and everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it… All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work the Lord commanded, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:21-29)
It’s easy for us to limit our own offerings to God to tiny remnants and leftovers, after we’ve spent most of our money funding other things we believe to be more important. What would it look like for us really to give God our first and our finest?
Tabernacle and temple. God forever on the move. God forever in his holy sanctuary.
Surely the Lord is in this place. What a gift that is! Let’s celebrate that gift today as we dedicate ourselves and our offerings to God’s service.
 Jonathan Alter, The Hebrew Bible: The Prophets, p. 468.
 Tom Long, Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship, p. 70
 Long, 76.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Years ago, my husband and I served as pastors of another church across town. One day we were clearing out some messy closets there and we stumbled across one of those old canvas tents, the kind with the metal poles and heavy green fabric that everyone used to use before the advent of lightweight pop up tents. It had obviously been sitting there for years. There’s no question it was the worse for wear. But what I saw as something possibly fit for my next dump run, our Children’s Director at the time rescued for a memorable object lesson.
You see, our kids had been learning Old Testament stories that year and they’d just been hearing about the tabernacle. That holy tent that Moses and the people carried with them from place to place as they moved around the wilderness on their way from captivity in Egypt to the land of Canaan. As we’ve just heard, the tabernacle was a place of worship, a place in which God was felt to be especially present, for the cloud indicating the glory of the Lord was there. And here it was: a tabernacle of our very own! Granted, it needed a bit of work, but before I knew it Children’s Director Julie and her team had erected the tent right in our basement classroom, given it a thorough scrubbing, and decorated it with felt and gold trim in ways that evoked that ancient tabernacle that travelled with the Israelites through the wilderness. They even began using that tabernacle for Sunday School worship.
Later that year, for one of her children’s times in service, Julie happened to be explaining what it meant when biblical figures fell on their faces before God. One of the Hebrew words we translate as worship means to fall down, to bow down, or to use that great old King James term, to prostrate oneself on the ground, face down in the dirt. After hearing this explanation upstairs in the sanctuary - that worship was about bowing down to show God respect - the kids stunned her that morning by entering their little tabernacle-tent in the basement and doing just that, all on their own. As they opened the tent flaps and stepped in, she heard them whisper to each other, “c’mon, guys – let’s bow down!” And they did! Little kindergarten and first and second grade bodies were suddenly prostrate, faces to the floor. Worshiping God in their holy place.
Most Presbyterian adults probably aren’t inclined to throw themselves down on the floor at 10:30 on a Sunday morning. But I sometimes wonder whether we might borrow a page from those kids. Those of us who’ve visited Muslim neighbors at their places of worship have certainly seen their willingness to bow their faces all the way to the ground to show respect to God, too. What would it mean for us to learn or re-learn or simply permit ourselves to express in some way that sense of the majesty and mystery of God?
In any event, you can see why that’s the story that comes to mind for me whenever I return to biblical texts about the tabernacle, which we do again this morning. It’s important to understand that unlike a church, a mosque, a synagogue or temple, all of which are built as permanent structures, the tabernacle we read about in the Old Testament was an actual tent. A large, elegant tent, to be sure, in keeping with its being a place of worship, but a tent nonetheless. This God who’d heard the cries of the Hebrew people, who’d sent Moses to deliver them from captivity in Egypt, would travel with them all the way through the wilderness to the land of Canaan. God appears in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night – clear signs of his presence with them at every stage. So naturally if this God was given a dwelling place it would need to be portable. A fixed structure just wouldn’t cut it. For we read that “whenever the cloud [of God] was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on the next stage of their journey.” (Exodus 40:36) Picture them packing up this elaborate God-tent, the ark of the covenant housed within it (the tablets with the ten commandments in turn housed within in the ark), and carrying all of it right along with them.
I imagine these visible signs of God’s presence would have brought them comfort as they travelled through unfamiliar territory. The pillar of cloud, the pillar of fire, the ark of the covenant, and the tabernacle all reminding them that God was right there with them as they went on their way. All that talk of the cloud of God’s glory settling on the tabernacle, and of Moses not being able to enter because the glory of the Lord filled it; all that talk of the sacred implements and instruments that filled the space (only a few of which Joyce read about today), they’re all simply reminders of the holiness of that tent, because God was there.
What an amazing image. A God who camps out with his people, physically travelling with them from place to place. Of course, we know God isn’t fixed in a single spot, however holy we may believe that spot (this spot) to be. God’s on the move, always out there beyond this sanctuary as well as here within it. What’s more, that holy camp out back in Exodus also tells us God’s not willing to be separated from God’s people. A tabernacling God demonstrates not only God’s itinerant nature, but also the permanence of God’s presence. There is nowhere we could ever go where God would not be also.
What’s good news for travelers everywhere is, I imagine, especially good news for those who’ve spent a great deal of time on the road. Think about how many times throughout history groups of people have moved from place to place, whether by choice (explorers, pilgrims, immigrants, pioneers) or because they had no other choice (refugees fleeing danger and crossing borders, victims of natural disasters finding their homes no longer habitable, others experiencing homelessness for any length of time). In the story of the Exodus we hear God saying to one and all: I travel with you.
In a few weeks we’ll be hearing from the Executive Director of World Relief, a Christian organization working with refugees in our area. Like me you may be interested in learning more about their important work and how we might lend a hand. Perhaps the God who moves with these particular travelers has a role in mind for those of us fortunate enough to have stable places to live.
After all, the part of the biblical story we’ve been reading is full of reminders for the Israelites to welcome the stranger and the foreigner in their midst, to show them kindness and hospitality (e.g. Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19), because for so many years they had themselves been aliens in foreign territory. They remembered what it felt like to be far from home, in transit, en route, and it compelled them to show compassion to others with similar stories.
Did you know tabernacle theology– this idea of a God who camps out with God’s people – appears in the New Testament, too? It’s right there in the opening chapter of the gospel of John. We’ll circle back to this again before Christmas, but when John 1:14 says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the verb often translated as “dwell” there actually comes from a Greek word meaning “to tent” or “to camp,” which in turn evokes the Hebrew word for tabernacle. The God of those ancient wilderness wanderings back in Exodus ultimately camped out in a human body – that of an itinerant preacher in first century Palestine known as Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, too, we encounter a God willing to accompany God’s people anywhere, a God who would do anything to be with us.
Meanwhile, admittedly stories like those we’ve read today from the book of Exodus can sound a little foreign to western, 21st century ears. All that talk of clouds of glory, golden lampstands, altars of sacrifice – it’s a far cry from our average Sunday morning worship service. It may be a little hard for us to wrap our minds around 40 years of wilderness wanderings too. But the main lesson of today’s texts is simple enough: God goes with us wherever we go. And as those Sunday School kids taught us years ago, even an old canvas tent can be a holy place when God’s camped out alongside you.
Can we sense God’s presence with us here in this place? Can we move out into the world confident that there will never be anywhere else we could go where God isn’t? Can we trust that the God who guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness can guide us through the confusion of our own age? Can deliver our broken world into a glorious new day?
Certainly such a God would be eminently worthy of our worship.
So as those wise little ones urged one another, pulling back the tent flaps to their holy place: “C’mon, guys. Let’s bow down!”
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We return this morning to our series about God on the move with a story about God trying to get Moses moving. It takes a little while, doesn’t it? Let’s cut to the highlight film.
To be fair, Moses isn’t exactly sitting still when our story begins. He’s working as a shepherd, keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro, hardly a desk job. He’d have been moving around regularly, and it sounds like he’s been on a particularly long hike with his sheep at this point if he’s gone “beyond the wilderness.” (Exodus 3:1)
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to Moses “in a flame of fire out of a bush… blazing” yet not consumed. (Exodus 3:2) Once Moses turns aside to see this strange sight, God commands him to remove the sandals from his feet, for he’s standing on holy ground. God then introduces himself: I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. (Exodus 3:5-6) And then tells Moses: I’ve got a job for you to do. It’s time to go back to Egypt, take on Pharaoh, and free your people.
Moses immediately pushes back: Who am I that I should go? (Exodus 3:11) And the reason I jumped a full chapter ahead for our second reading is that he argues with God for quite a long time. I skipped over a bunch of it; the point is God keeps on saying Moses needs to go back to Egypt for this important assignment, and Moses keeps on saying he's not the guy for the job. The people won’t listen to me, Pharaoh’s never going to let them leave… and a chapter later Moses is still going: I’m no public speaker, Lord. Seriously cannot string a sentence together. Always tripping over my own tongue. You’ve got the wrong guy.
Through it all, God offers signs and solutions to give Moses the confidence he needs to head back to Egypt and get the job done. They won’t believe you? Try this trick with your staff, or this one with your hand. Every excuse is answered. None are sufficient, it seems, for Moses to decline the invitation, which is after all, really a divine command and not a suggestion. We’ll be singing that command after the sermon today: “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh. Let my people go.”
Since none of his arguments are working, finally Moses pleads, “Oh my Lord, please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13) At which point God’s had enough. Frustrated by the constant excuses, God explains that Moses can give Aaron the content of the message and Aaron can speak for him. Problem solved. Done and done. Off you go.
There’s plenty to engage us as 21st century readers in this argument between God and Moses, because heaven knows Moses doesn’t have a monopoly on giving excuses. Especially when it comes to being asked to do things outside our comfort zone, it’s easy for us to understand how he must have felt. So it may be an ancient story, set on the opposite side of the world, but it feels immediate and relatable because… Well, we hear you, Moses. We get it.
In fact, it’s so much fun exploring this push back between Moses and God that I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of burying the lead as often as not when I’ve preached on this text. Allow me to try to correct that problem today.
It’s been right there in front of us the whole time. And now that I see it jumping off the page at me, it changes the tone of the story.
Listen again. “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry… Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”
It turns out the urgency of God’s call to Moses isn’t all about Moses. God’s children are suffering. God has observed their misery, has heard their cry. That’s why God doesn’t particularly care how eloquent Moses is, or how hard it is for Moses to get anyone to listen to him. That’s why God loads him up with signs and support.
When after all of those other excuses, Moses finally says to God “O my Lord, please send someone else,” the text says “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.” Why? Because the whole time Moses has been arguing, God’s children back in Egypt have been suffering. God hears his objections but frankly, compared to the pain of those being whipped as they try to build bricks out of straw, those excuses start to sound fairly petty. They’re being beaten and you’re worried about your public speaking ability? They’re being killed and you’re nervous about heading back to Egypt? Seriously, Moses, get moving…NOW! I’ll go with you and give you the words to say. This is way too critical to wait any longer. Their cries have come to me, I’ve seen their misery, and that’s why I’m calling you. Can’t you see how important it is that I’m pulling you off the bench? It’s not about your fitness for the job. It’s about a life-and-death need we’ve got to address. There’s no time to lose. Let’s go!
Of course, Moses didn’t have a news app on his phone showing him current photos or live streaming video of slaves being beaten in Egypt. He’d witnessed an example of that kind of cruelty before fleeing that place himself some time ago, but since then he’s been minding his own business in the fields with the sheep. How many families were hungry, how many children were dying, how brutal were the task masters and how tyrannical was Pharaoh’s leadership – these kinds of things were no longer immediately in his face. Perhaps time and distance had made him forgetful? Still, the cries of the oppressed reached God’s ears, their misery reached God’s sight, and God called on Moses to act.
In the globally connected world in which we live, the cries of the oppressed not only reach God’s ears, they reach ours too. God sees their misery and so do we. God sees the damage tyrannical leaders are doing and so do we. We can’t help but doing so. But what do we often do?
If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself thinking: I’m glad there are other people out there who are better educated in the issues, who have more time at their disposal to march in protests, who have more money available to give to those in need, whose voices will make more of an impact than mine will if they contact their government representatives. I’m afraid my list of excuses can go on and on.
I do this even though the cries of the oppressed are not all that remote. They are well within my own hearing and sight, as well as God’s. And yet I persist: Lord, I’m not skilled enough, not brave enough, not wealthy enough, not wise enough… Lord, I simply don’t have the time, the talent, the connections… Surely there is another person out there somewhere to take this on for you. Someone who… well, someone who most of all isn’t me. To quote Exodus 4:13, “O my Lord, please send someone else!”
But what if God is trying all the while to communicate to us: look, the urgency of this assignment isn’t all about you. It’s about the misery of your fellow children of God.
Now obviously there are going to be times when we are in pain ourselves for one reason or another. Times when there really are legitimate excuses for not pouring energy into others. When it’s all we can do to survive an illness or injury or loss, for instance. Or when we’re in the middle of a family crisis of some kind. The God who made us and loves us knows these things. Of course God knows. And God wouldn’t expect those to be the seasons in which we could give ourselves over to an important assignment elsewhere. Sometimes we’ve just got to hold tight and wait for our own storm to pass.
But on our regular days? When life is chugging along in a relatively normal way, can we hear God saying: “Look, you’ve met me here on holy ground. You’ve heard my voice and worshipped me here and you know who it is that’s calling you. So pick yourself up, and put those sandals back on your feet and grab that staff of yours, because it’s time to get moving. I’ve got important work to do to address the suffering of my children, and I’m calling on you to join me in that work. Let’s go!”
Surely the same God who heard the cries of those Hebrew slaves in Egypt so long ago hears the cries of suffering people today in Syrian refugee camps and in detention centers in our own country, in internment facilities in China and in tents under our own Seattle freeways. That same God sees the misery of those trapped in sex trafficking and those unjustly imprisoned due to racial prejudice. God hears the cries of those watching their children sicken from unsafe water and those watching their children die of malnutrition.
The God who called Moses is calling right now and brave souls are stepping up and answering that call, some of them the least likely people we might imagine would take on such important work. I suppose some of them may have been hoping for a call like this, but I’ll bet you most of them were just minding their own sheep, doing their own thing, maybe even moving along in another direction when something dramatic – a burning bush of sorts - caught their eye and they felt they had no choice but to turn aside and respond to an urgent call.
As for our own excuses? God may listen patiently for a chapter or two while we try to explain why we’re terrible candidates for tackling oppression and injustice. But sooner or later, I suspect God’s going to expect us to get moving anyway. Because that call I’m resisting might not be all about me; it might actually be about a pressing need in someone else’s life. Of course I can’t do everything, but if I’m honest with myself, is there something I could be doing? My unique calling, or yours - it may not change the entire trajectory of global injustice, but to someone it could make all the difference in the world.
I also wonder if there’s a particular call God has in mind for us as a congregation as we head into our 75th anniversary year and beyond. I’ll be interested to see if similar patterns emerge as we listen together for God’s voice in our upcoming prayer retreats. Because when we turn aside for a minute, acknowledge that we are on holy ground, and really listen, that call will be so much easier to hear.
Meanwhile we saw it back in Genesis and we’ve seen it again here in Exodus. God’s Spirit is out there on the move - breathing, blowing, blazing…and calling. Always calling. Calling the most unlikely people to get over their excuses, to really listen as they stand on holy ground, and then to move.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
When we speak to children about this God character we talk so much about here at church, we have to explain that God isn’t like other characters we know. God’s not visible, not audible… at least not in the ways other people are. Granted as Christians we believe God was revealed to us in Jesus, a real live person in 1st century Palestine who was at the same time the Son of God. In his life, death, and resurrection, those around him at the time could see and hear God in the flesh. But we who live many centuries later don’t have his physical presence with us either. So the challenge of invisibility remains.
It’s hard to get a handle on a God we can’t see, but at the same time we want our little church friends to be comforted in the knowledge that God is always with us. Heaven knows we struggle to wrap our minds around all this. So how do we convey it to kids?
One of the most common explanations is that God is like the air. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there. Or better still, God is like the wind. We can’t see it either, but we can see what it does, what it moves. The evidence is right in front of us that this invisible force is at work in the world: in the gentle rustling of leaves, in kites flying in the wind and sailboats moving across the water.
The beauty of this explanation offered by faithful Sunday School teachers everywhere is that it doesn’t only help to explain a tricky concept. It’s also deeply biblical.
In fact, the very first time we are introduced to God in the Bible, in the first full sentence of Genesis, this wind from God is sweeping over the face of the waters. In Hebrew the same word (ruach) is used for wind, for spirit, and for breath. So it’s equally appropriate to read Genesis 1:2 as the breath of God or as the spirit (lower case s) or even the Spirit (upper case S) of God sweeping across those waters. You can imagine how it deepens our understanding of other Old Testament texts, too, to be able to translate the word ruach as any of these three things: wind, spirit, or breath. And it turns out that in New Testament Greek the word pneuma also holds within it these multiple layers of meaning.
Like all human words about God, these words have their limitations, certainly. As we’ve seen again recently, there are winds so severe that they bring more in the way of fear and destruction than anything else. That doesn’t appear to me to be the way our biblical God chooses to be known to us on the whole.
But what all those layers of meaning (spirit, breath, wind) share in common is that idea of a powerful invisible force. It’s essential to life (none of us can survive without breath). It can inspire us or in-spirit us. And it creates movement, whether as a gentle breeze or as that mighty wind blowing life into the early church on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament book of Acts. All of these things are essential qualities of our biblical God. Our life-giving, spirit-lifting, always-on-the-move God, the God of all creation.
I find it helpful to return to Genesis 1 regularly, if only to be reminded that before any of us were around to lift a finger, before earthlings of any variety (scaly, feathery, furry, or human) even existed on this planet, God was already on the move. Breathing, blowing, sweeping across the face of those primordial waters. It’s both comforting and humbling to keep that sequence in mind. God is, then we are. God moves, then we move. In fact, we only move at all because God moves. In the words of a recent song, “it’s your breath in our lungs, so we call out our praise to you,” God. It’s God’s ruach, God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s wind, that makes anything and everything possible.
Among other things, this means it isn’t all up to us – the work of creating and sustaining and renewing life on this planet - and thank God for that! But we also find a wonderful biblical invitation running through both testaments to join God in the amazing work God is already doing in the world. As fun as it can be to kind of sit back and watch what God’s up to, to watch the Spirit blow where it will, we know God’s ruach moves through people, too, and sometimes those people are us. So we put up our sails, try our best to determine the direction of God’s movement, and then hop on board so we can move with God through the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.
We read a second text this morning from the early part of Genesis too. It’s often preached with a focus on the human characters in the story – their temptation by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, their bad choices, their regret. There’s plenty there for us to relate to, certainly, but if you were hoping for a sermon on temptation and sin this morning, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Today I want to direct our focus instead to that God character we’ve been talking about. Sure, the serpent speaks craftily and questions Eve’s listening skills and debates God’s honesty about the tree. And admittedly Eve is taken in, desires the fruit of the tree, eats and shares it and Adam’s taken in by the serpent’s lies too. But what is Godup to here? After the narrator finishes relating their arguments about what God did or didn’t say or do … what does God say and do?
Let me read a couple verses for you again: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’… (Genesis 3:8-9) I just love this picture of God spending time in the beauty of his creation, taking a stroll through his garden. Because God calls out for Adam and Eve as he walks it makes me wonder if it was his regular pattern to take a walk with his friends at that time of day, to shoot the breeze with them, if you will, at the time of the evening breeze.
The Hebrew word ruach makes an appearance again here by the way. The text literally says that God was walking “in the ruach of the day,” so in a windy or breezy time of day. The translators of our pew Bibles take that to mean an evening breeze. Apparently John Calvin went with morning breeze. The moment pictured here remains a tender one no matter the exact time of day.
At any rate, this time when God shows up for their stroll together through the garden, Adam and Eve are hiding from him because of the bad choices they’ve made and their embarrassment over it all. Isn’t it interesting that the God who already knows all that, and who would eventually address all that, begins by simply walking their way? The text says they heard God walking, inviting us to imagine divine footsteps in the garden. God on the move again, this time to seek out the very creatures who were so worried about disappointing him. Who felt they had to hide from him. He plays along and asks where they are, and when the whole story comes out rather than simply their coordinates in the garden, we realize they didn’t particularly enjoy trying to keep secrets from their Creator.
Again, there is so much more to this text and we’ll mine it for other insights another time, but today I invite you simply to notice God’s walk in the garden, those divine footsteps that indicate God’s seeking and finding his beloved creatures. They mess up, and God appears on the scene, strolling in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. They play hide and seek with God, and God calls out to them, and seeks, and finds.
If our first text reminded us that God always makes the first move and we’re invited to move in response, this second text shows us that God’s also paying close enough attention to our moves to step in when we’ve screwed up. God will seek and find us, call out to us as his friends and walking buddies, caution and challenge and redirect us as needed. If the first lesson is that we can be part of God’s team and follow where God leads us, the second lesson is that failure, sadly enough, is an option; it’ll happen; we’ll mess up. Sometimes God will zig and we’ll zag, heading off in entirely the wrong direction for a while. But that would never lead God to abandon us. Genesis 3 implies he’d miss us too much. He’d far rather call out to us, find us in our hiding spots, and offer us some midcourse correction.
In other words, we never make the first move – that’s God’s role, and it’s not up to us to make the last move either – that, too, belongs to God.
If you’ve ever wished God could be little more tangible, wished you could see God, or hear God’s voice in an audible way, look and listen to the movement of the air around you. Next time we feel a breeze, or hear the wind rustling in the branches of a nearby tree, or see a kite being flown, or watch a sailboat move across the face of the deep, the author of Genesis invites us to remember: that’s the God of creation out there on the move. It’s also God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s ruachmoving in and out of our lungs right now. God inspires us, in-spirits us, enlivens and energizes us with every breath we take.
Your average Sunday School student will be happy to explain it to you, thanks to the good work of their teachers: you may not be able to see God, but God’s always there – just like the air, just like the wind. Has been since Day One of creation and long before that too. Always making the first move, then inviting us to join in. Always calling out to us in the hope that we’ll walk with him, both in our proudest moments and in those that make us want to hide behind the nearest tree.
We may not be able to see God, but if we look closely, can we see where God’s at work? Maybe it would help to spend less of our time listening to serpents, and more of our time walking in the garden in a gentle breeze, or watching the wind sweep over the face of the waters.
As we head into our prayer retreat on Saturday, let’s pray that God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s spirit will lead the way. Showing up in ways we can see and hear and feel. Showing us where God’s already on the move around us. Showing us where we’re invited to get moving too. Amen?
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We’re off and running! Our backpack blessing for the kids at the beginning of the school year signals the start of a new program year here as well. We’re kicking off new children’s Sunday School classes even as we speak, adult Bible studies and fellowship groups reconvene this month, and we’re getting ourselves organized for some youth group events this year too. (If you’re in middle school or high school, be sure to talk to me at the picnic today to let me know what you’d most enjoy doing together.)
We’re also excited to be closing in on our 75th anniversary year which is coming up in 2020. You’ll be hearing more about our plans from your Session (your church board) over the next few months, along with talk of 2020 foresight as well as 2020 hindsight. Just as we are each individually works in progress, we’re a community on its way too.
As people on the move, we’ll want to be sure we’re headed in the right direction, and this is where our prayer retreats will come into play this year, the first one just two weeks away onSaturday, September 21st. If you are 12 years old or older, I really encourage you to make that event a priority. Our retreat leaders will teach us how to listen for God’s direction, something that will be useful to each of us as individuals in all kinds of situations, and will be useful to us as a congregation, too, as we look ahead to our anniversary year and beyond.
You’ll notice the theme of movement winding its way through our sermons this year as well. We’ll begin this fall with Old Testament stories of God on the move from day one of creation, through the Exodus from Egypt, through the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, through exile and return. A winter series will have us focusing on movement in the gospels; we’ll try out a new type of Bible study together by verbing our way into the Jesus story. We’ll move around and physically practice some spiritual practices during the season of Lent, and in the spring, we’ll circle back to the time of the early church to discover that every single character, however minor, had an important role to play in the action of the New Testament book of Acts.
It’s been fun to think about how the theme of movement sums up other things happening around the church this fall too. For instance, I know how eager some of you are to get moving again in our church kitchen. And I love the reason for that eagerness. While it will be fun to use it again for church events too, the primary motivation all along for getting it back in shape was so you could cook for our neighbors in the Tiny Cabins community and for others who are hungry. You want to feed others for their respective journeys. I can’t wait to see how that starts to play out in the months ahead.
Of course, when traveling as a group, it’s important to make sure no one gets left behind, so it makes me really happy to see everything from mission projects to fellowship events to worship and music leadership expanding to involve every age group and all sorts of talents. It’s a trend we certainly want to continue. We don’t have any interest here in being an exclusive group. In fact, I like to imagine our movement together less like a train or plane ride with doors securely fastened and more like an informal small-town parade where anyone can join right in and walk alongside us at any time.
And like good little hikers at church camp, we’ll sing as we go. Music Director Rob Jones and I have carefully selected a few new songs to lighten your hearts and bring you joy for the journey this year. We’ll introduce the first one - a beautiful new sung blessing - as soon as Rob returns next week, and I promise you’ll be singing it easily before long, as we conclude worship each Sunday. We hope it will accompany you outside of church too, wherever your own walk with God takes you in the weeks and months ahead.
The longer we’re on the move, the more important it is to travel lightly, which requires us to consider from time to time what we’re carrying with us, and to take stock. Which possessions, which traditions and procedures are worth preserving, and is it time to let any go? So some of you have been helping us physically declutter around the church facility, and some of you have been helping us rethink other aspects of church life – from staffing, to reports, budgets, and activities – all with a view toward simplicity and sustainability. As we head into our next chapter, what’s most important to bring along?
Another thing I love about travel is that it introduces us to people different than ourselves, and the same has been true of our movement as a congregation over the last couple years. Through book group discussions and field trips and guests joining us for worship, it’s been exciting to see this church family embracing your fellow explorers on a grand adventure far bigger than any single faith community. What encouragement it can bring us as we go along, to look around us and see brothers and sisters in Christ from the Hungarian Reformed Church, and from City of Glory Church International (with their wonderful Swahili choir), and from our neighboring Magnolia congregations … and to see devout friends from the Muslim Association of Puget Sound and from local synagogues all making their way down their respective paths as well.
We know there will be bumps in the road from time to time. But they needn’t deter us from moving along in the direction we believe God is calling us. After all, it was frustration over an unusable kitchen that led to the idea of our monthly Sandwich Sundays for our neighbors in the Tiny Cabins. I’m not sure how many of you know that what is now a favorite intergenerational service activity every month actually originated with a problem? We felt stuck – we couldn’t cook the hot meals we wanted to contribute – and that’s what allowed God to get our attention a year and a half ago and give us a whole new calling. So who knows what God can do with the next roadblock we encounter?
If you’re new to the congregation, I believe you’ll find a spirit of openness here at Magnolia Presbyterian – an openness to new initiatives and new ideas, to new ways of doing church. You’ll hear us speak regularly of trying and experimenting as we continue to learn what it means to be Christ’s faithful followers in this place at this time. We’d love for you to experiment right along with us. Help us watch and listen for God’s direction as we go along, too.
In our first Scripture reading today, we met Joshua right on the cusp of leading the people of Israel into the promised land. God urges him to pay close attention to God’s law and to walk in God’s ways, not turning aside from that path either to the right or to the left. That’s the road to success, God says. And the call comes packaged with a wonderful promise: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” It’s a promise that echoes throughout the Scriptures and it’s been true in every generation since. So we know the Lord our God willbe with uswherever we go. And as long as we keep on looking to God for direction, we’ll have a far clearer sense of where we should be headed.
Our second Scripture text, from the NT letter to the Philippians, reminds us that the life of faith is more journey than destination. Paul points out that even he – famous apostle, leader of the early church – was far from his ultimate goal. “Not that I have already obtained all this,” he says, “but I press on … I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14) Along his way, he’s grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ, and his words to that early congregation in Philippi capture perfectly what I want to say to you today as we kick off this new year: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:3-6)
Between now and then, I’m glad to be on the move with you. And not just moving any which way. Because simply running around busily as a new school year begins isn’t hard to accomplish. For some of us, busyness has become more like our default setting. I, for one, want to be intentional about what it is that keeps me active and moving.
My new favorite marching orders come from a coffee mug I stumbled across recently that read: “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning, the devil says, ‘Oh [crud], she’s up!’” That’s the kind of mover and shaker I want to be this year. How about you? Well then … let’s go!