Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a funny biblical word. A word that sounds positively quaint to our ears, so little does anyone use it these days. In fact, I suspect the only time most of us ever hear it is when we’re actually reading the Ten Commandments as we’ve done this morning. There it is, in #10. “You shall not… covet.” To covet meaning simply to desire, to wish for something enviously.
On one hand the old fashioned language lends it a certain weight – the sin of covetousness – but I wonder how many of us actually take this commandment seriously?
Sure, my husband Ken and I tease each other at times – when he’s pining over the latest, greatest techno-gadget; my own weakness is watching those shows about people’s homes being updated and remodeled. “Hey,” we say to each other, “No coveting, remember? Flag on the play!”
But even when we make the connection, it’s hard not to be dismissive – after all, we’re bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of messages every single day designed (let’s face it) to encourage coveting! If not our neighbors’ slave or ox or donkey, then certainly his home theater system, her smartphone, or their car.
Not all of the Ten Commandments seem equally to inspire us to brag about breaking them – though the Sabbath one certainly does, in this fast-paced, 24/7 culture. (Rest? Who has time to rest? We’re all so busy!) I think this one, about coveting, is considered to be decidedly outdated too. In a culture so driven by advertising, in an economy that relies so heavily on convincing us we must have things we don’t really need, is it even possible to take the 10th commandment seriously?
And just how serious is it, anyway? I mean, sitting in a list alongside murder, theft, and adultery, why does coveting even rate a mention? How could simply wanting something (not taking it, mind you – that’s commandment # 8… or distorting the truth to get it, which would have us in #9) why would just plain wanting it be so bad? What’s the big deal?
Maybe the big deal is what coveting isn’t.
For coveting is the opposite of contentment.
And “I want what he’s got” prevents us from recognizing God’s amazing gifts that already surround us.
Just listen for a moment and try to guess what this next quote refers to: “You want it. You want it bad. Sometimes so much it hurts. You can taste it. You feel like you would do anything to get it. Go further than they’d suspect. Twist your soul and crush what’s in your way. Then you get it. And something happens. You become the object of your desire. And it feels incredible.” Would you believe you’ve been listening to an actual perfume ad?
I ask you, how in this day and age could anyone not covet? How do we protect ourselves from internalizing messages like these? It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a Mercedes or the latest mouthwash; the message is the same. We hear it so often most times we don’t even notice it anymore: You want it. You need it. You’ve just gotta have it. (So even though you walked into the store for a few pairs of socks for the kids, they’re going to do their level best to convince you that you need to walk out with a flat screen TV!)
If you were with us a couple of months ago you’ll remember reading Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he reminded us that it isn’t just what we do, but what’s in our hearts that counts? So that not just murder, but hatred, is a problem; not just adultery, but lustful thoughts? I’m reminded of that gospel teaching when I read this tenth commandment. Because apparently, it’s not just lying and stealing that can be destructive. It’s also our desire for more.
OK, so coveting is really bad – it made the top ten list of things we oughtn’t do, even –yet we live in a society designed precisely to make us covet. The advertising industry isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon. So it sounds like a Catch-22 to me. It makes me wonder if there’s any way out.
There is, but it turns out we need to revisit that other most neglected commandment to find it. Would you believe we already have in our hands a secret antidote formula to help us avoid the sin of coveting, of wanting more? And it sits right there disguised as… Sabbath.
What’s the connection? Sabbath, one day each week to step away from the rat race, to step away from keeping up with the Jones’s, to take a break from working and rushing and shopping till we drop.
I’m sure many of my teenage daughters’ friends would be dismayed to hear me say this, but a day at the mall probably isn’t the best way to spend a Sabbath, in order to take full advantage of its life-giving benefits. The purpose of Sabbath, after all, is to step away from the pressures of the world in order to reconnect with ourselves, with our loved ones, and with God. One of those worldly pressures is the pressure to acquire the newest and best, the latest and greatest.
This isn’t a guilt trip, honest – it’s an invitation. And I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to anyone else. But to regain our sense of perspective and our priorities, we do need to step away once in awhile.
For each of us I imagine it could look a bit different, what any one of us would most benefit from stepping away from. When it comes to allowing the Sabbath to help us avoid the sin of coveting, we might hear an invitation like: Put down the catalogs. Step away from the home shopping network. Or just plain unplug – literally, as well as metaphorically. Step away for an hour or two. Better yet, the Scriptures tell us, step away for a whole day. Leave the whole advertising-dependent economy behind, stop comparing your life to others’ lives on social media, and do something else entirely. Then sit back and watch your priorities begin to fall back into place. The promise is that when we claim that time away, we’ll discover ourselves wanting less, because we’ll remember how much we’ve already been given.
Not that our priorities will magically stay in place – that’s why we’re invited to do this every single week. Otherwise even Sabbath couldn’t compete with the other messages we hear.
And remember that society will exert its every influence to tell us we’re nuts when we do sit back and appreciate what we’ve got, instead of grasping and striving for get more. Rather than earn money, Henry David Thoreau sought to reduce his wants so he wouldn’t need to buy anything. “As he went around preaching his ingenious idea, the shopkeepers of Concord hoped he would drop dead.”
Bottom line: coveting has been an issue for God’s human creatures from day one. Adam and Eve wanted more fruit than was good for them. The children of Israel, wandering through the wilderness, wanted to hoard more manna than they really needed. The fact that coveting made it into the Ten Commandments only further emphasizes that it has been an issue all along. But –here’s the good news – our tendency to violate that pesky tenth commandment can at least begin to be countered by the gift of the fourth. Remember the Sabbath Day. Step away from the rat race. Step away from consumerism. Regain your perspective. Reclaim your life.
Obviously the danger is we’ll continue to ignore both commandments and become entirely swallowed up by the culture – we’re exposed to vastly more “buy me” messages than any prior generation. It’ll take some doing not to be brainwashed into believing what we’re told about what we must have. Interestingly we are also, in this culture, very likely to forget to slow down, rest, step away and regain our perspective through the gift of Sabbath.
But when we see the connection, and pair the two, what could be a lose/lose situation quickly turns into a win/win. I know, God says, how hard it will be for you to resist wanting more. That’s why I’ve given you the gift of holy time. Embrace it. Twenty-four hours each week to remember, as any good Mr. Rogers’ fan knows, that “the best things in life aren’t things.”
Think of the most memorable, amazing moments in your life. How many of them required a shopping trip? How many of them were affected by anything a neighbor had or wore or drove? I’ll wager not a one. The best things in life are unattached to anything the advertisers can sell us. Because as hard as they try, they can’t package love. For that matter they also can’t sell awe, or mystery, or holiness, or peace. But these things are already there, absolutely free, if we’ll just stop long enough to notice them. Grace upon grace upon grace.
“Thou shalt not covet.” It’s a hard word. But God in his infinite wisdom also offers us this complementary commandment that helps us keep it. Thank God one of the things we most need to avoid breaking the tenth commandment is already given us in the fourth. Let’s claim the antidote formula! Step away, for a time, from all that’s out there trying to convince us the key to the good life is more stuff. Step away, and watch the transformation in our hearts from coveting to appreciating, from wanting to celebrating.
Sabbath can be hard to come by in our go-go-go culture, where as often as not when we ask each other “How are you?” we get answers about being so busy we can’t keep up. Sabbath rest, for some of you, may at this moment feel utterly out of reach.
But how might it transform your life to remember that God not only invites you, but commands you, to stop, catch your breath, and rest? What small changes could you make– even this week – to make it possible for you to keep this commandment in some way, rather than assuming it’s utterly impossible, and ignoring it completely?
I imagine summer’s as good a time as any to give it a try.
Maybe you haven’t been thinking about that funny old biblical word, specifically. But if, like me, it concerns you that our society encourages us to covet, I urge you over the next few months to step away for a Sabbath, as long as you can, as often as you can. And watch your “I want’s” begin to morph into “thank you’s” and your “I need’s” into stories of amazing grace. Amen.
 Advertisement for perfume in Macy’s window, as cited by Wayne Muller, in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, p. 129
 Mary Pipher, quoting Richard Armour in Shelter of Each Other, p. 94)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s such a simple thing, in a way. A bowl of water. A small splash on the forehead. But this simple act you’ve witnessed today is actually one of the biggest things we do, as a church. For hiding just below that small bowl of water you see before you in the baptismal font is a mighty fountain of significance. And to borrow a phrase from a favorite church song I learned as a child, it’s a fountain flowing both deep and wide.
Its width may already be clear to you, for we emphasized in the words we spoke together a few moments ago that Jericho has become part of the worldwide church. The Apostle’s Creed reminds us that every baptism into any congregation is at the same time a baptism into the one church family that stretches across time and around the globe. Jericho is now part of the church-with-a-Capital-C. (When we talk about the holy catholic church, incidentally, that’s catholic with a small c, catholic literally meaning universal, so we’re talking about the universal church in that creed, not the particular Roman Catholic branch of the church.) In other words, the way in which Jericho was baptized this morning – both the water we used and the words we said – unite him with Christians around the world, and they also bind him to that great cloud of witnesses that has gone ahead of him in faith. He will never be alone as runs the race that is set before him, for he is surrounded and supported by saints of God from every nation and every generation.
The breadth and width of the baptismal waters has local significance as well. For everything we do together as a church really has its start right here at the font.
In our tradition we can baptize at any age, from the youngest infants to the oldest adults. For an adult, for instance, or for teenager who has grown up in the church and is ready to make his own decision to be a follower of Jesus, baptism reminds us that God’s gift of grace calls for a response of faithfulness. And today, as we baptize a small child, the very same sacrament reminds us that God’s love claims us before we are ever able to respond in faith. After all, Jericho has years ahead of him to decide what to do about the fact that he’s been baptized. But what a wonderful reminder for all of us, meanwhile, that we don’t actually need to do a thing to earn God’s love. We are welcomed by God and by God’s people without a single prerequisite, and assured that we belong.
And baptism in a local church is not simply about an individual child belonging to a church family. It is also about a church family’s responsibility to that child. Just as Jane and Jarrad, James and June represented Jericho’s biological family today and promised to help raise him in faith, the rest of us made promises too. We promised to love, encourage, and support Jericho, to share the good news of the gospel with him, and to help him know and follow Jesus. This invests with tremendous meaning everything we do as a local church, because everything we do helps us fulfill those promises. Not only every minute spent teaching Sunday School, but every coat of paint added to enhance a children’s classroom, every interview to staff the church nursery or hire a new youth director as we hope to do later this year, every kid friendly mission project, every opportunity for our children and youth to serve as worship leaders, every prayer offered for our church kids, every friendly conversation in coffee hour that shows we’re taking a real interest in their lives, even the care packages we send each year to our college students – all of it helps us live into the promises we’ve just made as we celebrated Jericho’s baptism today.
So again, it may seem a simple thing. A bowl and a pitcher. A splash of water on a forehead. But this simple act is one of the biggest things we do, as a church.
And when we chose to live into our baptism as individuals, we find that it has incredible depth to it too, this fountain of water, as well as width or breadth. Our congregation’s mission statement talks about the church offering a well of faith and renewal. So I invite you to imagine today that this small bowl of water sits at the top of a deep well, or pool, and that dipping hands and heads in here is an invitation to dive ever deeper into the substance of our faith.
For at its heart, baptism is not only an act of the church, both global and local. It is also an act with great meaning for individual Christians, should we choose to live into our baptisms by responding to God’s grace and seeking to live in God’s way. Once marked as a child of God in baptism, we are invited to remember always that we are God’s own. In every moment and every situation life sends our way, we can recall we have been baptized – whether sprinkled, splashed, or dunked – and claimed as God’s beloved. And who among us doesn’t need those reminders from time to time? To help us keep our bearings, when times are hard. To remind us who and whose we are, when temptation strikes. To motivate us toward greater generosity when it would be all too easy to be selfish. To bring us comfort, when we are faced with tragedy.
Both of our Scripture texts for this morning were selected by Jarrad and Jane as verses they hope will guide Jericho throughout his life. From Proverbs, the call to seek out wisdom and understanding, accompanied by the reminder that the Lord is at his side. And from the first chapter of the book of Joshua, words of encouragement originally given to Joshua himself as he assumed the mantle of leadership from his predecessor Moses: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” The Lord at our side. God with us wherever we go.
In baptism we are marked – did you hear it? – marked as Christ’s own forever, and forever is quite a long time, as it turns out. Today this sweet child of God is an almost-one-year-old birthday boy. But someday he will be a 5 or 6-year-old ball of energy bounding off to his first day of kindergarten. And someday that same smile that can light up a room will be found on the face of a teenager holding his first set of car keys in his hand. And someday Jericho will be a young man eagerly heading off to college, or nervously interviewing for his first job. He will remain God’s beloved, he will remain Christ’s own in each and every one of those moments, just as we all are. And if he stands in a church like this one to be married someday, or becomes a dad himself, he may take comfort in reminders that his journey of faith had its start here, in a small act of great depth. Even when he takes his final breath, he will belong to the God who loves him in life, in death, in life beyond death. If raised to understand the importance of this simple act we have celebrated with him today, Jericho can find joy and comfort in his baptism his whole life long. Just as he can find strength and courage in these biblical promises that the Lord is by his side, that God is with him wherever he goes.
Again, it may seem a simple thing – a pitcher, a bowl of water, a little one having fun splashing around in the font. But baptism is one of the most important things we do in the church. For that fountain flows both deep and wide. Wide enough to bind us to a local community of faith, and to Christians around the world. Deep enough to offer us a well of faith and renewal our whole lives long. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The majestic poetry of its opening lines right away sets the gospel of John apart from the other three gospels. The author of Mark seems to have been in too big a hurry to bother with an account of Jesus’ birth at all, jumping right in at his baptism. But in Matthew we quickly find ourselves in the story of an unwed mother and her worried fiancé. And in Luke we get an amazing human interest story that involves everything from a quiet meeting between a couple of women who didn’t expect to be pregnant, to details of the Roman taxation system, to descriptions of the manger scene and the bands of cloth in which Mary wrapped the baby Jesus.
Compared to these other gospel accounts, the opening chapter of the gospel of John certainly uses loftier words and images to describe the birth of Christ. No smelly animals in a stable, no embarrassing questions about Mary’s marital status, simply: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only son.”
Yet it’s in this same gospel, where in some places Jesus seems so very distant with all his talk of divine glory and unity with God the Father, it’s here in John that we also find some of the most intimately human portraits of Jesus with his family and friends.
The first is this wonderfully down-to-earth story about Jesus in the role of wedding guest, at the marriage of an anonymous couple in Cana. A story all the more delightful (especially on Mother’s Day) because Jesus’ mom gets in on the action.
The story places us in the middle of the wedding banquet, actually – by the time we tune in, the wine has already given out. We know that weddings in the ancient world were large-scale celebrations – they often went on for several days, and it would not have been uncommon for a whole town to be invited to join the party. Plenty of hard-earned cash was spent to ensure that in addition to tables loaded down with food, wine would flow in abundance. And if the wine were actually to give out partway through, it would have been nothing short of “social disaster.”
It’s at precisely at the brink of such a social disaster that the narrator allows us to listen in on the conversation between two of the wedding guests, Jesus and his mom. It’s classic, isn’t it? “Son, they’ve just run out of wine.” No answer. “Jesus, did you hear me say they’d just run out of wine? Out of wine, of all things. And this a wedding feast. What a shame. . . A shame, I said, Jesus. . . Isn’t it a shame, I said.” “What was that, Mom? I couldn’t hear you. But these folks sure know how to throw a party, don’t they?” “Son!” “Yeah?” “I said, THEY HAVE NO MORE WINE.”
You could argue that Mary wasn’t making a request exactly. At least no more than I am when I mention to my husband over the phone that we’re out of bread at home… We can also tell from Jesus’ response that he knew what she meant. Her words said “they have no more wine” but something in her tone of voice or the way she looked at him must have said “take care of it, would you, sweetheart?”
So then what’s with Jesus’ reply? In the version we heard this morning he says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” He seems to have been using a common Hebrew expression, “ma li leka” – literally ‘what to me to you?’ And as you might imagine, biblical commentators love to weigh in on stuff like this – Was Jesus being rude to his mother, as it first appears in the English? Was he just trying not to draw attention to himself and away from the happy couple? Was he simply having too good a time at the wedding to be bothered, (as I suppose I’ve implied in my somewhat irreverent paraphrase)? Eugene Peterson has fun with this line too in his rewording of John 2 in The Message: “Is that any of our business, Mother?”
But of course whatever explanation we choose also has to account for the second part of what Jesus says: “my hour has not yet come.” This is loaded theological language in the gospel of John. Among other things, it implies here that Jesus is free from all human controls, even from the directions of his own mother. His actions, he seems to be explaining, are to be governed by God’s timing alone.
Now interestingly enough, Jesus’ mother doesn’t seem particularly put off by either part of his response – the apparent rudeness or the profound theological truth – she just turns to the servants and says “Do whatever he tells you.” Much as I love her chutzpah here – it’s another one of those terribly human elements of the story—I imagine the author would also have us note the tremendous faith this woman has in her son. Her son who, as she knows, but few others do at this point in the story, is also God’s Son. You see, mom knows that if her Jesus takes this on, the problem will somehow be resolved. And so she acts as a catalyst for the very first of Jesus’ miracles in the gospel of John.
My own mother wondered aloud, when I told her I was preaching on this text today: “What do you suppose Mary had seen in Jesus up to that point? What might she have witnessed in his young life that we’re not told about in the gospels, that gave her the confidence he could solve this problem?” For what we find here in a sense is a story of mother-as-“model disciple: she trusts that Jesus will act and [then] allows him to act in freedom.” And what he does, of course, knocks the socks off servants, wine steward, bridegroom and disciples alike. Turning water into wine, “turning scarcity into abundance,” and kicking off an earthly ministry which will be all about defying expectations and bestowing “grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
The only other place in John’s gospel where the mother of Jesus is mentioned is at his death. And there too, at the foot of the cross, we find an intimately human portrait of Jesus. With his dying breath he takes pains to make sure his mom is well cared-for after he is gone, saying to her: “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple whom he loved, “Here is your mother.” A single act that emphasizes his humanity and at the same time makes clear that his visit here on earth, in an ordinary human family, has now come to an end. The Word had indeed become flesh and dwelt among us, but now it was time for the Word to return from whence he came. Jesus’ mother is present in that final scene of his life, just as she is present when the curtain first rises on his earthly ministry here in Cana.
One final note about the stories of Cana and the cross – I like to play around with little linguistic details in the text sometimes, and I love the fact that John introduces the wedding scene at Cana as one that takes place “on the third day.” I realize it may be a throw-away line. This may have all just happened to take place a few days after the first disciples were called. But “on the third day” is such a rich phrase for those who know the full story of Mary’s son. That it would be “the third day” on which this beautifully extravagant wedding feast takes place reminds me of other biblical texts that talk about the kingdom of God itself as a great wedding banquet, a feast of abundance to which all are invited.
So we can remember the divine gift we were given on that day Jesus’ own mother had to watch him hanging on the cross. The Word-become-flesh allowed death, which ultimately claims all human life, to claim him as well.
But remember, too, Easter people, that on the third day after Jesus spoke those parting words to his mother, the stone was rolled away from the tomb. And then this mother’s son, who always enjoyed a good party, knocked the socks off death itself, inviting us to join him in the most extravagant celebration the world has ever known. Alleluia!
 Frances Taylor Gench, “Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John” 2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 11
 O’Day, p. 295.
 O’Day, p. 295.