Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Two weeks ago today we enjoyed a different sort of service here at church, one in which the entire order of worship was designed around favorite songs submitted by members of the congregation. Some of you loved how many old favorites you got to sing that day. Others of you may have found yourself trying to sing an awful lot of new songs at once. After all, not all of us have grown up in the Church, and even among those who have, we represent a wide variety of church backgrounds. My hope for each of you, though, was that you would resonate personally with at least a couple of songs, even as you heard others speak of what was most meaningful to them. My further hope is that the soundtrack of your life will come to include some of the beautiful hymns and songs of praise we sing here at church, if it doesn’t already.
One of the great gifts of modern technology is that we no longer have to wait around for our favorite songs to be played on the radio, or to purchase an entire album for that one piece we love. (Of course some in our congregation are young enough they can’t imagine living in such a world!) Instead, we can now construct elaborate, eclectic playlists of our own, pieced together song by song. So that whether we are working out, commuting to school or the office, dancing around the living room with the kids, or providing background music for dinner with friends, we can do so accompanied by music we love. I am certain we each have songs on our playlists that trigger powerful memories for us, too, and surely we could spend days on end swapping those stories with one another as we did in a smaller way for that handful of hymns on Music Sunday.
Whether or not you happen to have recordings of them at home, I hope you do find yourself from time to time calling to mind the music we sing together here at church too. I’ve found that simply by exposing myself to hymns, praise songs, and camp songs over so many years of my life, that this music too, has snuck its way into my mind and heart, and comes to mind at the most helpful times. And it absolutely makes my day when in between the latest billboard topping hits from the movie “Frozen” or the boy band One Direction, I catch my teenage daughter singing a favorite praise song or hymn at home too.
I remember doing an exercise with a newly blended music team following a merger of two very different church congregations a number of years ago. As an ice-breaker, to get at what each person most loved about church music, we asked the question: what will be the soundtrack when you get to heaven? The answers were as diverse as we’d imagined they would be, and then some. And the songs they imagined were accompanied by everything from the world’s most powerful organ to a gentle guitar, from harps, violins, and brass to a rockin’ gospel pianist. Having just returned from a sabbatical trip to Scotland, where I had the opportunity to enjoy the elaborate wood carvings in the Thistle chapel at Edinburgh’s St. Giles cathedral, I made sure to add bagpipe-playing angels to the list too!
At any rate, all of this got me to thinking about songs in Scripture, of which there are a great many examples, the largest concentration being in the Old Testament book of Psalms. The Psalter was a hymnal, of sorts, a compilation of songs of personal devotion and national hymns, songs of congregational praise and individual laments. By Jesus’ day the psalms were very familiar to the Jewish people, often memorized in their entirety, so that a single verse could call to mind a whole psalm. If they passed out hymn surveys in the synagogue in Nazareth, these would be the songs on everyone’s list.
Perhaps you have memorized Psalm 23 at some point in your life, our first Scripture reading this morning, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For some of you that psalm is an old familiar friend. For others, though, it may be far less familiar, or even a brand new gift you’ve heard only just this morning. If so, I invite you to borrow a page from people of faith who’ve gone before you and read and reread those words and begin to make them your own. Write them out several times to help internalize them, or post them somewhere you can see them everyday. They are words that have brought comfort to countless men and women of faith over the years. I hope they can do the same for you.
And whether or not you are familiar with Psalm 23 in particular, imagine memorizing all 150 psalms! It would take awhile, surely, but then what a gift, to be able to call to mind those words at any time. We’ve sadly lost the art of memorizing big chunks of Scripture, in our tradition today, when to have these words in our hearts, and on the tips of our tongues, could transform our lives.
So this summer, I am issuing us all an invitation. We’ll start rather smaller than a 150-chapter challenge, but I propose we reclaim the gift of Scripture memory work and learn at least a few verses from the book of Psalms together. Over the coming weeks I will introduce a number of psalms that have been on the playlists of women and men of faith for a great many generations. I will speak about them, but more importantly, we will have a chance to learn them together. We will sing them at times, and sometimes we will repeat key verses or find another way to move the words off the page and into our minds, and hearts, and spirits. We’ll try these words on for size, and by the end of the summer my hope is that at least one of these psalms will become so beloved that you will want to learn it by heart, so that you will be able to call it to mind again and again. A new song for your playlist, along your particular journey of faith.
I’ve mentioned that Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, has traditionally been a favorite for many in the Church. In our second Scripture reading this morning, Psalm 131, I wanted to introduce you to another beautiful psalm of trust that is less well known. If you’re looking for an easy one to memorize, it’s a good candidate, at just three verses long:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
In seminary, I learned that the Hebrew in verse 2 indicates the weaned child may be “on” and not simply “with” the psalmist. That has led some scholars to believe this may actually be a psalm composed by a young woman, singing words of trust in God while holding her baby. What a beautiful image, to calm and quiet the soul like this, resting in God like a small child cuddling with its mother.
We’re going to try something a little different as we conclude the sermon time morning, and actually give you a few moments to reflect quietly on this morning’s psalms. Both are printed on the last page of your bulletin, and you’ll see a few questions there on the facing page too, for you to consider either right now or later on during the week. Or you may simply want to pick one favorite line from one of these psalms, and either write it out or say it to yourself several times, over and over again, to help you memorize it. Wayne will play something on the piano for us for a few minutes, while we are doing this, and when he is done, I’ll offer a prayer before we move into our next hymn. So let’s enjoy a few moments of quiet, and immerse ourselves in the words of these psalms…
PRAYER: What a gift it is to inherit from our ancestors in faith such beautiful, powerful words. Words of trust. Words of comfort. Help us so to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer) that we may call them to mind on both good days and bad. Meet us in these words, Lord God, our Shepherd and our loving Parent. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s always a privilege to welcome new members into our congregation. Not only because we already value their participation and friendship, and because each one will add so much to the life of our church family over the years. But also because as each group of new members stands up in front of the church and makes their promises, the rest of us have an opportunity to be reminded once again what being part of the Church is all about.
I’ve been privileged to have wonderful conversations with Chris and Liz and Linda over the last few weeks, and with each one had an opportunity to talk about those questions they just answered just a few moments ago. First, a question about turning away from evil, renouncing it, actually, a wonderful old fashioned word that reminds us there are things in this world we need to stand against, just as there are things we need to stand for. Then a question about turning toward Jesus as Lord and Savior. And two questions that ask us in greater detail about being Christ’s faithful disciples, or followers, questions we are fortunately able to answer by saying, “I will, with God’s help.” (Because heaven help us all if we had to be faithful on our own!)
Ultimately, it’s about choices. Choices that lead to occasions like this one, with public statements of faith. But also less public choices every day of our lives about what is important to us, where our priorities lie, and above all, whom we will serve.
Both of this morning’s Scripture passages remind us that the ancient Israelites chose to follow Yahweh in a world with plenty of other gods competing for their attention and allegiance. In the case of Joshua, the Hebrew people who had wandered in the wilderness for forty years on their way to the promised land have finally crossed the Jordan river and entered the land of Canaan. Keep in mind, that land was already occupied by worshipers of other gods. In addition, the text indicates the Hebrew people themselves in some cases seem to have drifted back toward worship of ancestral gods at this point in the story. So we find this covenant ceremony in chapter 24, in which Joshua seeks not only to unite the 12 tribes of Israel as a single people, but also to commit them to worshiping Yahweh, the God of Israel.
In the case of Micah, the context is the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, a few hundred years later. Micah spoke out against all kinds of corruption and social injustice in his day, and uttered bitter oracles against the city of Jerusalem, the seat of religious and political power. Yet he held out hope for forgiveness and restoration, as we see in beautiful, comforting prophecies like the one we read this morning. Since military victory or loss was sometimes understood at that time to be an indicator of the power or impotence of a people’s god, faith in Yahweh sometimes wavered when powerful enemies like the Assyrians bore down. But Micah steadfastly called his people to faithful worship of the one true God, through it all.
Of course competing gods continue to abound today. It’s all too easy to worship power, money, conformity, or to idolize athletes and film stars. I suppose if we were to be brutally honest, some of us even give a fair bit of allegiance to our smart phones! (Can’t you just imagine an alien from a distant galaxy wondering: what are these little devices to which earthlings are so utterly devoted?) On a less facetious note, many of us quite understandably prioritize our families and friends and our work.
The point is that none of these things is worthy of our ultimate allegiance. Tempting though it may be to let a variety of things move higher and higher up our priority lists, not one of them is meant to be our Lord.
In the midst of so very many choices, the challenge Joshua issued to his contemporaries echoes through the ages: Choose this day whom you will serve. And our new members this morning have chosen, by declaring Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior. Just as each of us has chosen this morning too, by entering this sanctuary to worship that same Lord.
The prophet Micah put it this way: “all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.” (Micah 4:5) It’s a fascinating exercise to look around and think about who, or what, the folks around us are actually choosing to serve, whoever they may profess as Lord. In the name of which god, exactly, are they walking, as they consult stock market tickers and celebrity twitter feeds as if seeking an oracle from the Lord? Granted, it’s a humbling exercise too, when we pull out the mirror and start looking carefully at our own priorities. Which is why, again, we promise to be Christ’s faithful followers only “with God’s help.”
One of the best reasons for being part of a congregation like this one is that we can call each other to account when it would be all too easy to get off track. Simply by turning up on a Sunday morning, think of all the wonderful reminders we receive, to reset our priorities. We are called to worship, remembering in humility that God is God and we are not. We are reminded of our flaws, as we confess our sins, and then assured of God’s forgiveness, because God’s grace is sufficient for our every weakness. We read the Scriptures together, so that we will have words of God’s truth ringing in our ears, and lodging in our hearts, as we head out the doors to a world that plays by a very different script. In passages like the one we read today from Micah, we also hear God’s promises. And I don’t know about you, but in a world filled with violence, war, terrorism, it does my heart good to remember that swords will one day be turned into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Weapons that take life will be transformed into tools that give life? The sooner the better, please!
As each week’s service continues, we then pray to the God who meets us where we are, and knows our every need. We pray for others, too, remembering that we are beloved children of God, but by no means God’s only beloved children. We offer money, and time, and talent as gifts of gratitude to the God who has given us so very much. And throughout each service we sing hymns of praise, again remembering that God and God alone is worthy of our worship.
So in a sense, every act of worship can be a smaller scale choice that supports a far bigger choice. The same could be said for every generous act of offering. Every devoted form of mission or service. Every thoughtful act of compassion.
As for me and my house?
In a world greedy for power, status, fame, I choose a Lord who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and teaching us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
In a world that encourages us to be selfish, I choose a Lord who calls us to reach out to others in his name, for whatever we do for any of God’s children, we do for him.
In a world wracked by violence, I choose a God who promises that instruments of violence will one day be turned into agricultural tools.
Above all, in a world too often in despair, I choose the God of resurrection hope.
Choose this day whom you will serve. Let’s be sure to choose wisely. And then let’s live like we mean it. Amen? Amen!
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Today’s sermon probably needs a new title, given the events of this week here in Seattle, but at least let me explain where I was headed with that choice of words, before some new things needed to be said...
Did you know that the word “conspire” in its most literal, root sense means to breathe together? The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, is also the word for breath (we find the same two meanings for Hebrew ruach), and con- is a prefix meaning together. So on the count of 3, let’s all take a deep breath… blow it out again… There! We’ve just launched a conspiracy. To conspire: to be filled with the same spirit, the same wind. When we come together to worship God, the Holy Spirit comes among us, and invites us to join in God’s conspiracy to share his love and grace with the world.
Now take another breath. Isn’t it fascinating to think that within our atmosphere is all the air that ever was? The same ancient air keeps recirculating, in a sense, which means that every time any of us breathes we breathe air left over from the creation of the earth…We breathe the same air that Plato breathed, and Mozart and Michelangelo. “Every time we breathe, we take in what was once some baby’s first breath, or some dying person’s last.” (Barbara Brown Taylor).
Barbara Brown Taylor imaginatively describes the last moments of Jesus’ life: “When Jesus let go of his last breath – willingly, we believe, for love of us – that breath hovered in the air in front of him for a moment and then it was set loose on earth. It was such … breath – so full of passion, so full of life – that it did not simply dissipate as so many breaths do. It grew, in strength and in volume, until it was a mighty wind, which God sent spinning through an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. God wanted to make sure that Jesus’ friends were the inheritors of Jesus’ breath, and it worked.
“Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand. Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of tying their own sandals without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had. When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them. In short order, they were doing things they had never seen anyone but him do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again – not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.” (Tayor, Home By Another Way, 143-144).
I love this story in Acts 2 – the birthday of the church, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with these incredible dynamics of wind and fire and multilingual preaching. The question for us to consider as we celebrate the day of Pentecost today is this: do we believe in a God who still acts like that? Do we believe in a God who still has power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people?
I’ll tell you one thing for certain. The Holy Spirit has been blowing through the campus of Seattle Pacific University over the last few days. There have been many disturbing images and stories making the rounds since Thursday’s tragedy, and I suspect we’re all going to remember where we were, where loved ones were, and how recently we’d driven by that campus when the news broke. But other kinds of stories and images have also been getting around, including the fact that the entire SPU community responded to a violent, evil act… in worship. Worship, that very evening. Worship that included prayers not only for those injured, and for Paul Lee, the student who was killed, and his family. But prayers for the shooter, too. Prayers for the shooter. That very night, while they were all still reeling, while it was hard even to know which end was up, that community remembered to look up, and to pray, even praying for the disturbed person who had taken so much away from them that day. To see photographs of students and faculty gathering in prayer circles on the commons, too, that very evening…Wow.
There is nothing good to be said about a 19-year-old student losing his life through such a senseless act. And absolutely nothing of redeeming value I can find in such a wonderful, faithful community of people being terrorized in this way. I have no interest in putting a positive spin on this. We are invited, above all, to weep with those who weep today, to mourn with those who mourn.
But as I’ve thought about what to say about all of this on Pentecost, of all days, the day when we remember the Holy Spirit blowing through the early church, I keep coming back to a line from one of our Presbyterian creeds, the Brief Statement of Faith, which says: “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage…”
In a broken and fearful world, God’s Spirit gives us courage…
I also find myself looking to our text from John, as much as to our text from Acts. For there the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and, after blessing them with his peace, simply breathes upon them, a gentler, more intimate Pentecost story if you will, with fewer pyrotechnics. But again, that same gift of divine breath. And again, that gift of the Spirit’s courage to a frightened community.
I think it can be helpful to read both of these texts together, John 20 and Acts 2. Because sometimes we may experience dazzling or spectacular acts of God; but other times we encounter the Holy Spirit through quieter moments of power and grace.
I’ve long suspected anyway that the greatest miracle of Acts 2 was not so much the rushing wind or the tongues of fire or even the sudden ability to preach in different languages. It was the fact that an exhausted band of Jesus’ followers, who'd had the wind knocked out of them just a few weeks earlier, at Jesus’ death, suddenly found that wind knocked back into them again -- and then some -- by the power of the Holy Spirit.
God knows our city, our neighbors, and particularly our friends and family at SPU, need to feel that divine breath right now. They need every sign they can get that God is with them, and for them, and loves them, in the midst of everything they’ve been through.
But there is no question in my mind that God’s Spirit is already with them, and with each one of us. Because in a broken and fearful world, God’s Spirit gives us courage. And that community has demonstrated extraordinary courage this week. Both as individuals – we think of the heroism of Jon Meis and others who took down the shooter, of SPU president Dan Martin and others who have needed to put public words around what has happened – but also the courage exhibited by the school as a whole.
Courage to pray. Courage to love. Courage to act.
Certainly it’s easy to be paralyzed into inaction at times like this. But “don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can." (John Wooden) At the very least, today and in the days ahead I invite you to keep these words in mind, from a benediction one of my colleagues often uses at her church: "Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who journey the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind."
Remember that God is holding the SPU community - and all of us - in the palm of his hand.
Remember, too, that in a broken and fearful world, God’s Spirit gives us courage, breathing peace, and love, and grace upon us, just when we need it most.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.