Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
My name is Deb, and I'm a planner. A somewhat compulsive organizer. Calendars. To do lists. These are my go-to tools.
So anytime I start to doubt God’s sense of humor I consider that two of the great loves of my life – parenting and pastoring – continually put me in situations where unplanned, unanticipated, couldn’t-possibly-have-seen-it-coming moments can be so much more important than anything on my carefully crafted to do list for a given day.
And I’m not just talking about interruptions that involve a medical crisis for someone, or require some other type of pastoral care intervention.
I’m also thinking of the wonderful, beautiful moments no amount of planning could possibly pull off. I’ve been caught off guard with many of those as well.
If you’re at all like me, and you tend to aim for efficiency when you have a long list of places to go and things to do, and every once in awhile you wonder why you’re still running around at top speed on a glorious sunny day, or why you’re trying so hard to check things off that to do list when you’d far rather spend time with your family or with a good friend, then you too may hear a word from God in today’s Scripture text.
Whether it's taking the time to stop and consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air – and we are so blessed in this part of the world with opportunities all around us to do just that – to consider the majesty of the Olympics and Cascades and Rainier, the deep blues of the lakes and the Sound, the rainbow of flowers on every street … or whether it's a disruption in our schedule that graciously allows us to slow down and focus on what's really important, I believe we’re all invited to be on the lookout for good distractions from God.
Jesus certainly knew how to take advantage of life’s marvelous interruptions. It was just last week that we read about the disciples trying to shoo away the little children who wanted to climb up onto his lap. Let them come, Jesus said. This is what the kingdom of God is all about.
Bill Harley tells a story about how a kid's baseball game reminded him of the importance of setting the right priorities and allowing himself to be distracted by an eternal moment. Some of you may have even heard him share this story on NPR’s All Things Considered some years ago.
Harley had an epiphany one day, and the experience spawned a philosophy he holds close to his heart. He calls it going for the dog.
You see, his younger son was playing T-ball. This is the bottom step on the 20-rung ladder leading to Major League Baseball, where it's possible to make millions of dollars and buy your parents a large house. So needless to say, he was delighted when Dylan wanted to play, though the bank would not give him the [huge] mortgage he promptly requested. The rules for T-ball are different in many ways from the major leagues. First, there are no agents. There's no reserve clause. You go to the team that chooses you. In fact, there are only two teams in the league, with 25 kids on each team. Parents are friendly to each other, a civility which [may or may not last] in several years as the lottery for positions in the major leagues comes closer and closer.
In T-ball, everybody bats each inning, regardless of how many outs there are. In fact, an out is a rare occurrence. All 25 players play each inning, and are littered through the infield, forming a wall of humanity through which it is virtually impossible for a ball to pass. On each team, there's one player who insists on fielding every ball and then running after the base runner, never throwing it. Balls are rarely thrown, and if they are thrown, they must either go over the head of the intended recipient or hit them in the back.
Every player who scores has hit a home run, no matter how many times the ball has been thrown into the outfield. No such thing as an error. In T-ball, each player has a different concept of the score. In T-ball, kids have to go to the bathroom almost immediately. Civilian parents go out into the field and console their children, who have skinned their knees or bumped into their neighboring infielder. And, of course, in T-ball, no one pitches. The ball sits on a plastic tee, waiting for the batter to hit it, which generally happens about once every three batters.
Now, on the other team, there was a girl named Tracy. Tracy came each week. Bill knew this, since his son's team always played her team. She was not very good. She had coke-bottle glasses and hearing aids in each ear. She ran in a loping, carefree way, with one leg pulling after the other, one arm wind-milling wildly in the air. Everyone in the bleachers cheered for her, regardless of what team their progeny played on. In all the games he saw, she never hit the ball, not even close. It sat there on the tee waiting to be hit and it never was. But everyone absolutely loved Tracy.
Sometimes, after ten or eleven swings, Tracy hit the tee. The ball would fall off the tee and sit on the ground six inches in front of home plate. 'Run! Run!,' yelled Tracy's coach, and Tracy would lope off to first, clutching the bat in both arms, smiling. Someone usually woke up and ran her down with the ball before she reached first. Everyone applauded.
The last game of the season, Tracy came up, and through some fluke, or simply in a nod toward the law of averages, she creamed the ball. She smoked it right up the middle, through the legs of 17 players. Kids dodged as it went by or looked absentmindedly at it as it rolled unstopped, seemingly gaining in speed, hopping over second base, heading into center field. And once it got there, there was no one to stop it. Have you heard that there are no outfielders in T-ball? Well, there are for three minutes in the beginning of every inning, but then they move into the infield to be closer to the action, or, at least, to their friends.
Tracy hit the ball and stood at home, delighted. 'Run!' yelled her coach. 'Run!' All the parents, all of them, they stood and screamed, 'Run, Tracy, run, run!' Tracy turned and smiled at them, and then, happy to please, stumbled off to first. The first base coach waved his arms 'round and 'round when Tracy stopped at first. 'Keep going, Tracy, keep going! Go!'
Again, eager to please, she headed to second. By the time she was halfway to second, seven members of the opposition had reached the ball and were passing it among themselves. It's a rule in T-ball - everyone on the defending team has to touch every ball. So the ball began to make its long and circuitous route toward home plate, passing from one side of the field to the other. Tracy headed to third. Adults fell out of the bleachers. 'Go, Tracy, go!' Tracy reached third and stopped, but the parents were very close to her now and she got the message. Her coach stood at home plate calling her as the ball passed over the first baseman's head and landed in the fielding team's empty dugout. 'Come on, Tracy! Come on, baby! Get a home run!'
Tracy started for home, and then it happened. During the pandemonium, no one had noticed the 12-year-old mutt that had lazily settled itself down in front of the bleachers five feet from the third-base line. As Tracy rounded third, the dog, awakened by the screaming, sat up and wagged its tail at Tracy as she headed down the line. The tongue hung out, mouth pulled back in an unmistakable canine smile, and Tracy stopped, right there. Halfway home, 30 feet from a legitimate home run. She looked at the dog. Her coach called, ''Come on, Tracy! Come on home!' He went to his knees behind the plate, pleading.
The crowd cheered, 'Go, Tracy, go! Go, Tracy, go!' She looked at all the adults, at her own parents shrieking and catching it all on video. She looked at the dog. The dog wagged its tail. She looked at her coach. She looked at home. She looked at the dog. Everything went into slow motion, and ... SHE WENT FOR THE DOG!
It was a moment of complete, stunned silence. And then, perhaps, not as loud, but deeper, longer, more heartfelt, they all applauded as Tracy fell to her knees to hug the dog. Two roads diverged on a third-base line. Tracy went for the dog.
And there you have it - a whole new way to define a “perfect game.”
You might say Tracy stopped to consider the lilies of the field, to seize an eternal moment from God. She understood what was most important in that instant. And it wasn't what everyone was telling her it ought to be. She taught all those goal-oriented adults that sometimes the process is more important than the goal, the interruption more worthwhile than the task at hand.
So whatever these summer months may hold for you: Consider the lilies... Let the little children come... And by all means, go for the dog!
May we all be blessed with glimpses of eternity in the ordinary moments of our lives. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s a favorite gospel story for many of us: Jesus welcoming the little children. Here in Luke’s version we’re told that parents were bringing even infants to Jesus, so he could touch them. Matthew talks about children being brought to Jesus “in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.” (Matthew 19:13) Mark says Jesus “took them up in his arms, and laid his hands on them, and blessed them,” which is no doubt why many of us call to mind when we hear this story a picture of Jesus sitting with a whole bunch of kids up on his lap, and others crowded around. In all three versions, the disciples feel Jesus shouldn’t be bothered. He’s got more important things to do, people to see, signs to perform. Why waste his time on a bunch of little kids? This jars our modern sensibilities, of course, for what on earth – we think – could possibly be more important than our children? We need to remember that this gospel episode happened in a different time, and a different culture. Back then children weren’t the center of the universe around which their whole families would orbit. But even then, even there, Jesus recognized their tremendous value. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them;” he says. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16)
This congregation has a long history of welcoming its children. I’ve enjoyed seeing old black and white Sunday School photos from the early years of this church’s life, and I’ve loved hearing from adults in our church family who themselves grew up here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church decades ago. Welcoming our children, caring for them and teaching them is nothing new to us. For that, we can already be very grateful.
And then to have developed such a thriving children’s program in recent years under Lori Sawyer’s leadership. And to have benefitted from Liina-Ly’s lovely teaching style with our children this past year, and to have our fantastic team of volunteer preschool teachers and Worship BLAST helpers– we have certainly been blessed over the years with adults who know the importance of sharing God’s love with every child who comes through these doors. And I promise you, the search team is determined to find a new permanent Children’s Director worthy of picking up the baton, and ensuring that our growing children’s ministry will continue and flourish in years to come!
In the meantime, as you head into summer, you are poised on the brink of a fantastic opportunity to nurture “Sticky Faith” in the children of this church.
If you’ve not heard the expression “Sticky Faith” as it relates to children’s and youth ministries, the idea is that we want to do whatever we can as a church family to help our kids develop a faith that sticks with them after they graduate from high school, and head out on their own.
Kara Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, explains the importance of “Sticky Faith” this way:
"When I was a child, 30 of my relatives would regularly gather at my grandparents’ house for family holidays. When we were all assembled, there were far too many of us to fit around one table. So we set up two tables: the adults’ table and the kids’ table. The adults ate in the dining room. We kids ate in the TV room.
The adults had pleasant conversation. Somehow the kids' conversation usually degenerated into dinner rolls being thrown at each other and a jello-snorting contest.
In theory, we were at the same meal. In reality, we had two very different experiences.
That sounds a lot like how adults and kids experience church today. The adults’ table is in the bigger, nicer room and the kids’ table is down the hall…
Do 16-year-olds [and 3-4 year olds, and 8-10 year olds] need time to be together and on their own? You bet. But … in our effort to offer relevant and developmentally appropriate teaching and fellowship for [children and youth], we have segregated—and we use that verb intentionally but not lightly—students from the rest of the church. That segregation is hindering young people’s faith development.
More than any other … variable, moving kids out of the kids’ table and into an intergenerational context of worship, ministry, and life seems to deepen students’ faith in high school and beyond.”
Here in this church family, we have taken this call to heart over the last 5 years or so, seeking out a variety of ways to integrate our children and youth into congregational life, encouraging their full participation everywhere we can, even as we provide opportunities for age-specific learning and fun as well. We are also ideally positioned, as a small church, to capitalize on the recommended 5 to 1 formula – that is, 5 or more adults befriending each individual child, as they grow up in the church.
The nature of the “sticky faith” we want to impart to them – in fact, the “sticky faith” we hope we all can claim, at every age – isn’t only about feeling a part of our church family, however wonderful that can be. And it isn’t only about remembering some great Bible stories and songs, as valuable as they can be. It’s about challenging one another to re-order our lives, to align with the important truths we are taught in the Scriptures. Sticky faith, at its heart, is really about transformation.
“Do not be conformed to this world.” That can take a lifetime of effort, can’t it? When we’re young, peer pressure may take the form of wanting to dress like our friends, or have the same toys… then perhaps it’s about attending the same parties, whether or not they always meet with our parents’ approval for acceptable party refreshments and behaviors… But really, peer pressure doesn’t ever go away. It just morphs – perhaps into subtle and not so subtle temptations to keep up with the Joneses?
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
In other words, not just “don’t give into peer pressure” but resist peer pressure for the sake of the gospel. Not simply “be yourself” but be the person God created you to be. Remember that you are a child of God, that you belong to God, and God will hold you and claim you as his own, challenging you to live faithfully as Christ’s disciple, your whole life long. Life into that identity; embrace that calling. Don’t allow yourself to be squeezed and squished and contorted by the world. Allow yourself instead to be molded and formed and shaped by God.
How do we resist being conformed to the world? How do we set ourselves up for transformation? This is how. Right here, right now – this is how. We give ourselves the greatest chance of success when we absolutely steep ourselves in worship words: words of Scripture, words of prayer, and praise. And when we surround ourselves with brothers and sisters in Christ who believe them, and seek to live them out, and who challenge us to do the same. Our kids need these regular reminders as much as the rest of us do.
Of course there are other perks to being together each Sunday. Since it was my own daughter that was recognized as our high school grad today, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for sharing two recent snapshots of what her experience has been like, having grown up in this church family. One happened two weeks ago, when Alina’s fellow Deacons celebrated her graduation and gave her a beautiful send off … during one of a few meetings this year that she, at 17 years old, was invited to moderate. The other happened sometime last month, when toward the end of the Passing of the Peace, a third grade friend spotted her at the front of the sanctuary, where she was leading worship, and ran all the way down the aisle to give her a great big bear hug. There’s no question moments like these will stick with her, and help her feel deeply connected to this congregation, long after she packs her bags for college.
Of course there’s no way we can share that kind of magic with our church kids, if they’re not around. So I encourage all of our parents truly to make worship a priority for your kids. And I encourage the rest of you, to do everything in your power to support our busy parents, when they do. I would love nothing more than for every child of this church to become just as “stuck,” if you will, just as tied and tethered and beautifully connected to their faith community, as my own high school grad is.
To that end, I was delighted to learn that Pastor Janine will be bringing in an exciting new worship and education program this summer designed specifically to encourage intergenerational connections during your morning worship services. It sounds like you’ll even be invited to participate in service projects as a church family some Sunday mornings! How cool is that? That has sticky faith-building potential written all over it!
There’s no foolproof method for resisting being conformed to the world, and instead being transformed by God. But regularly reminding ourselves what transformed lives should look like is an excellent start.
And for that, you need only stick around.
I wish you all a wonderful summer of sticky faith building, for all ages!
We conclude our sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus today, with this story of the 10 lepers. As you may know, leprosy is a nasty, infectious disease which in ancient times was believed to be so contagious that those suffering from it were subjected to further pain by being forced to leave their homes, and remain at a distance from their families and communities. Lepers were perhaps he ultimate outsiders in Jesus’ day.
But given what we’ve seen of Jesus elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that he reaches out to these hurting, marginalized folk just as he’s reached out to others on the fringes of society. In the text Cheri just read for us, you’ll notice the lepers kept their distance as they called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They wouldn’t have been allowed to come any nearer. But Jesus does have mercy, saying “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” (that being a necessary step toward reentry back into society, if someone had been healed). And sure enough, they are made clean. Their relief must have been profound. But the text says only “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” He bowed down to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. This prompts Jesus’ two questions: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?”
Douglas Adams, author of a book of creative Bible study ideas, shares a fun way to teach this story. He has his classes enact a reunion of the nine lepers who did not give thanks to Jesus, using holy imagination, if you will, to explain why they didn’t give thanks. Why was it, exactly, that they never got around to saying thank you to Jesus for healing them? He also has a few people volunteer to stand up front as judges, scoring the responses much as Olympic judges score a gymnastics routine. Each judge has a set of ten cards numbered 1 through 10. He tells the judges to give a 10 for an excellent excuse and a 1 for a very poor excuse. Good responses generally get anywhere from 6 to 9, and poor responses from 2 to 4. As each leper shares his excuse, the judges are to get their cards ready… and when it’s time, the judges raise their cards to show their scores all at once.
“People share some very inventive excuses,” Adams notes. One person says he was so thankful that he wanted right away to spread the word about Jesus to others and so did not have any time to go back to Jesus, who he was sure would understand. Another person says he had such shabby clothing from living in the leper colony that the first thing he wanted to do was go to the mall and buy a new wardrobe. Another person says she was so eager to see family she had not seen for so long that she forgot all about Jesus. Again, lepers would have been forced to remain outside the community, separated from their loved ones. Not a bad reason for forgetting to get back to Jesus to say thank you.
Adams continues: “I have only heard one excuse that scored a perfect ten from all judges. Here is that perfect excuse: ‘I did not thank Jesus right away because I followed what he told us to do: to go show ourselves to the priests. After I had done that I went back to find Jesus to thank him; but he moved around a lot and had left each place I looked for him. I persisted but never found him; but I did find Peter. I said, “Peter, I am looking for Jesus. Where is he?” And Peter responded, “I don’t know any Jesus.”
Why was this the perfect excuse? Because while we’re a few weeks into the Easter season now, immediately before Jesus’ death Peter had been so frightened, so worried for his own safety, that he denied Jesus three times, claiming not to have even known him. Surely the former leper couldn’t have been faulted for asking Peter. Jesus’ right hand man should have been a great person to help him locate Jesus so he could offer him thanks. But boy, did he ever pick the wrong day to ask…
In any event, one of the things I like about that creative exercise is it allows us to cut the other nine lepers a little slack, right? It’s clear from the way the story is told that they should have all remembered to thank Jesus, as the one leper did, but heaven only knows what was going through their minds and hearts at the time, or just how badly they were longing to get back to their families or friends, or for that matter just how hard they tried to find Jesus.
Meanwhile, it interests me that Luke shares one more detail with us about the one leper who did return to give thanks. Did you catch it? He was a Samaritan. I’ve already mentioned that lepers, because of their disease, were not allowed to participate in the life of the community, or even to live with their families. And as we know from other stories in the gospels, Samaritans were not welcomed in polite Jewish society either. So this guy’s an outcast on just about every level, before he meets Jesus. No wonder he’s grateful to have his health restored. At least one of the huge strikes against him has been lifted. Not to mention he would have felt so much better physically. And Jesus reminds his audience that it was this ultimate outsider who got it right: “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
It’s interesting how gratitude works, isn’t it? I mean, we all know how to say thank you, and we know there are any number of circumstances in which it’s appropriate to offer thanks. But what kinds of things make us feel the most grateful? Perhaps situations in which we had everything to lose, but didn’t? Or situations in which we’ve begun with nothing, and gained something deeply important to us? Certainly we can feel grateful when we’re forgiven for something we’ve done wrong, or when the diagnosis, the test, the surgery goes the way we’d hoped, or when a painful conflict is resolved, or when some sort of disaster has been averted. It’s far harder to give thanks when life stays messy, when things don’t go the way we’d like them to, or when our health or the health of a loved one doesn’t improve.
In this context, I can’t help but think of my mom today. Mother’s Day isn’t a bad day for channeling gratitude in general, but today I’m particularly reminded of the ways Mom found to give thanks even in the final weeks before her death last summer. And please understand – she wasn’t perfect, nor would she ever want me to make her out that way. You should know, too, that she had plenty of moments of despair in her battle with brain cancer, plenty of deep anger at the injustice of it all. We are all of us, after all, a jumbled mix of emotions, a blend of strength and weakness, as we walk through whatever challenges life has in store for us.
But among the memories that will always stay with me from Mom’s final weeks is this one. She’d lost her mobility by this point, and she’d lost much of her ability to communicate with us. But Dad knew how much she would enjoy a drive one glorious summer day, since her sight was one thing that hadn’t been impaired. So we got her into the car and headed out. Almost immediately, as we came over the first hill near their house, we heard her gasp. Naturally – since we’d been in 24/7 caregiving mode, we worried something was wrong. But it was quite the opposite. We’d simply reached a point where she could see – all at once – dozens of sheep and cows, hundreds of flowers and trees, and her beloved Catskill mountains. We then heard her say quite clearly: “happy, happy.” I don’t know how many times she said it on that short drive: “happy, happy.” And we knew in those moments she was thanking Dad, for taking her out on what proved to be her final adventure away from the house. And she was praising God for the beauty of creation, in those views she had loved her whole adult life. For quite often when she had admired those same mountains, she’d recalled the opening lines of Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” That day, of course, she had to paraphrase. But what a touching paraphrase. “Happy, happy” all along that drive, when few other words had been possible for her that day. It was the most beautiful expression of gratitude I’ve ever heard.
I’m inspired, as I remember that moment, to pay more attention to the world around me, to look – even on my hardest days – for what shines, if you will, for what’s there to be celebrated, noticed, appreciated…
Now to be fair, I also have a great deal of sympathy for those nine lepers who forgot to come back to Jesus. I’ve never had to contend with anything like the suffering from which they’d just been released – heaven only knows what they felt most compelled to do just then instead of returning to thank him. And I certainly don’t think any of us should require of ourselves or of others that we feel grateful in every moment.
But I do know what genuine gratitude looks like. Sometimes it looks like biblical outcast returning to give heartfelt thanks to Jesus for healing him. And sometimes it looks like a terminally ill English professor, robbed of her power of speech and knowing she wouldn’t be healed, sharing a moment of happiness on a drive through the countryside.
My prayer for you today is that you will have reason to feel grateful in the days ahead - that you will find your “happy, happy” place, as it were, no matter what challenges life holds for you.
I pray we’ll all be able to witness moments of genuine gratitude around us as well. Amen.
 Douglas Adams, The Prostitute in the Family Tree: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible, pp. 75-77.