Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I was about 16 years old, and had just completed the Counselor-in-Training program at the camp I attended every summer as a child, when Ephesians 3:14-21 was given to me as a gift by one of my counselors. Read aloud to me at a graduation ceremony around the campfire, printed out carefully in calligraphy on a little card. I carried that card around with me in my Bible for the longest time, and treasure the passage to this day.
So I want first of all to pass along to each one of you, and particularly to our newest church members, this gift that meant so much to me at an important point in my own faith journey. It’s the gift of a prayer, and it goes like this:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
Hearing those verses at that moment in my life, I remember being impressed by the ‘huge-ness’ of the whole thing. Breadth and length and height and depth. Knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. A God who could accomplish more than anything I could ask or imagine. To put my faith in Christ’s love, then, was to be rooted in solid ground and able to soar up to the heavens all at the same time. If all this were true, there was nothing I couldn’t do. They were words I needed to hear, and it felt like they were written just for me. This was a prayer that I might be strengthened, that I might be rooted and grounded, that I might be filled with all the fullness of God. The ‘you’ in that prayer was me.
As I’ve revisited these same words in more recent years, they’ve begun to hold an additional, even richer layer of meaning for me. Because it turns out that the ‘you’ that appears throughout the prayer is not singular, but plural. It doesn’t always show up in English, unfortunately, but the Greek is clear enough. And we know this letter was written to a church, after all, a community of faith. So it really would be more precise to read “all of you” or to borrow the Southern “y’all” whenever we come across the word “you.” Listen again:
v. 16: I pray that you all may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit
v. 17: that Christ may dwell in your hearts (plural)
v. 18: I pray that y’all might have the power to comprehend
v. 19: and that y’all may be filled with all the fullness of God
It may sound like a trivial distinction. Individuals, churches, it’s the same God at work. The same work of God. What’s the difference?
The difference is what this morning’s worship service is all about. The difference is that we belong not only to God, but to one another. When we said the Apostle’s Creed together this morning, we talked about “the communion of saints” and the whole “catholic (or universal) church.” We are united around the world and throughout time with the rest of Christ’s Church. Likewise when we join with a particular congregation, we’re choosing to worship, serve, and live with a community of faith.
A trivial distinction? Can’t we just as easily be women and men of faith on our own? I suppose we could try. But it’s hardly the recommended course. Which is why it is such a great joy to welcome our new members today, and our new music director, Andrey. We hope that we can support them as they support us, over the years, as we seek to be faithful to God together.
Of course that strong sense of family also makes it hard to say goodbye. Believe me, I tried to explain to Jane and Jarrad that it should require at least a ¾ majority vote of the congregation before they should be allowed to move with their kids as far away from us as Texas. But we pray that they – and everyone we care about whose geography prevents them from being with us on Sunday mornings - will still feel our love and support from afar. We certainly know that God will be with them there, as God is with us here.
And the heights and the depths the author of Ephesians is talking about aren’t even the roller coaster ups and downs of our lives, individually or as a church, though admittedly those can take us for a wild ride sometimes… but the infinitely greater dimensions of God’s love, power, and grace that hold us through it all.
Who are we? We are a family rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, trying together to comprehend an amazing God who promises to accomplish in us (plural) not just more than we can imagine, but abundantly far more.
The weeks following Pentecost are a great time for superlatives like these, aren’t they? Think the author of Ephesians has gone a little overboard with the dramatic imagery? You try reacting to the miracle of the resurrection or the great whooshing outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church without relying heavily on your thesaurus!
Rooted and grounded and reaching for what lies beyond. Together. The hymn we are about to sing offers beautiful reminders of what that
togetherness can look like.
We are pilgrims on a journey,
Here together on the road,
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will weep when you are weeping,
When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.
To those of you joining this church today; to others of you we’ve only just met this morning, and to those of you who’ve been coming here for decades; to one and all, welcome to worship with this family of faith. We’re so glad you’re here.
Because together, with all the saints, we’ll be so much better able to comprehend God’s great mercy, power, and love. And together, God will be able to accomplish in us abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, for all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there are likely to be people celebrating . . . birthdays and anniversaries and graduations and loose teeth and time with best friends. . . achievements in school and accomplishments at work … successful fundraisers at the organizations with which they volunteer. . .a new love, the purchase of a new home, or a personal best out on the driving range or the Little League field.
In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there are likely to be people waiting . . . for an estimate from the mechanic, for word from the college or employer of their choice, for news from the adoption agency, for a phone call from the doctor, for an important email from the next town, or the next continent…
In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there may very well be people who have just that morning snapped at their kids, argued with their partners, lost an important piece of paper, their glasses, their car keys. There may be people who just that week have lost a coveted business account, or their job. Or people in just that moment who are reeling from a broken relationship, or the loss of a parent or a friend.
On any given Sunday, people of faith gather to worship God with friends they’ve known and loved for years, and with folks they’ve never, or only just, met. And if there are 50 adults in a congregation, more likely than not they’ve come from 50 different places, been reared in 50 different homes, and in the past 24 hours have experienced 50 different combinations of emotions. Someone stands up and calls all our individual souls to worship and just like that, we begin to pray with one voice. In speech. In silence. In song. And your concerns become my concerns as together we form the words “Lord, hear our prayer.”
In any given congregation on any given Sunday, there’s already a lot going on in the hearts and minds of those who gather for worship. . .
And then there are those Sundays when a single issue affects everyone in the room. It can be an event specific to a local church: a staff member’s retirement, a new staff member’s introduction, having to say goodbye to a treasured family in our congregation. Or it can be something we’ve all just heard in the news. How many Sundays have we entered this sanctuary with our hearts breaking for the victims of the latest outbreak of gun violence here in the US, most recently of course in Orlando, where we can’t help but think this morning of so many grieving families and friends. Sometimes when we arrive on a Sunday morning one of these issues might even weigh so heavily on our hearts that it is difficult to worship. . . yet here you will find us once again, praying together.
This is significant as we approach our two texts for this morning, for the psalms were produced and prayed in worshipping congregations. And the prayer Jesus taught us is framed entirely in plural “us” language: “Our Father…give us…forgive us.” These prayers “train us to pray with others who have prayed, and are praying: put our knees on the level with other bent knees… join our voices in lament and praise with others who weep and laugh.”
There’s a lot to be said for praying together. For one thing, “left to ourselves,” we can slip into selfish prayer. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “with God as the Great Sympathizer, the Great Giver, the Great Promiser, we [are tempted to] go to our knees and indulge every impulse for gratification.” Praying together, as part of a worshiping community, reminds us “that there are others to whom God speaks . . . [that] others in the family also have needs … and that I am neither the only nor the favorite child.” The “us” language in the Lord’s Prayer, the fact that the psalms have been used since the very beginning by communities of faith, cautions us against an overly individualistic focus in prayer. Biblical prayer doesn’t allow me to think this conversation between heaven and earth is all about me.
And that the conversation is far bigger than I am can also be tremendously encouraging. I understand there’s an Orthodox Christian tradition in which worship services last several hours. No one is under any illusion that individual worshipers will pray for the whole time—they expect each other to take breaks—but the understanding is that at any given moment, someone will be praying. Throughout the ebb and flow of personal prayers, the prayer of the community continues on.
What a beautiful image for our prayer lives. Particularly for those times when you or I might feel unable to pray. When the words simply won’t come, whether because we feel distant from God, or because we’re too angry, too fearful, or too sad to pray. We can rest assured in those moments that the family of faith carries the conversation for us. In Annette Dunlap’s words, “being brought into Christ’s presence is one of the gifts of the Christian community.”
I am grateful too, for the ongoing prayers of a community of faith that extends far beyond any particular church’s walls, all around the world and back through history. The amazing thing about the Psalms, Eugene Peterson reminds us, is that “even when we pray [them] by ourselves, we are not by ourselves: community is always implicit in the Psalms and the moment we pray them we are drawn into [that] community. David danced these psalms before the ark and the Hebrews in Solomon’s temple chanted them. Children running down the slope of Olivet waved palm branches and shouted these psalms and Jesus in his upper room with the disciples sang them. The Corinthian Christians celebrated the eucharist with these psalms and [saints of every age] fill heaven with them.” I think, too, of the Lord’s Prayer, of all the times and places it’s been prayed. Of all the places it’s being prayed at this very moment: “Our Father who art in heaven. . .”
On any given Sunday, there’s already a lot going on …in our world, in our personal lives, as we pray these ancient words. And we’re invited to broaden the picture even further, remembering what’s going on in the biblical story as well. The story of an infinitely powerful Creator God who is at the same time intimately concerned with the life of each and every one of God’s children. The story of an Almighty God who chose to live a human life, to talk with us face to face, and to teach and heal, to model for us what living in God’s way could look like. The story of a resurrected Lord who conquered death, bringing hope to a despairing world. Throughout the centuries, people of faith have prayed these same words, finding in them reminders that “God is [always] greater than the circumstances that imprison us.”
So today, and every Sunday, we are invited to join the chorus. When we are able, to lift up fellow children of God who in this moment are struggling to pray. And in those moments we cannot seem to pray ourselves, to listen for the voices of brothers and sisters in faith, as we lift our eyes to the hills:
“From where does our help come?
Our help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. . .
The Lord will keep our going out and our coming in
From this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:1-2, 8)
 See Eugene Peterson, Answering God, pp. 89-90
 Peterson, p. 19
 Peterson, pp. 91-92
 Peterson, p. 84
 From Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide for March 11, 2003.
 Peterson, p. 91
 Irene Anway, from Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide for March 13, 2003.
Years ago, Presbyterians were expected to learn by heart the Westminster Shorter Catechism, so a few of you may recall the answer to its opening question: “What is the chief end of man?” “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” (Book of Confessions, 7.001) While these days the language may sound a little dated, that statement remains in many ways the definition of what being a Christian in the Reformed tradition is all about. But what does it mean, our “chief end” being to “glorify” and to “enjoy” God?
It means that worshiping God is our primary work as God’s people.
Work may sound like a funny word to use when talking about worship. Sure, we know we’re all invited to worship, but surely you all have enough work to do the rest of the week – at your respective jobs, taking care of your homes and families, volunteering, going to school, running a hundred errands and . . . worship as work? Come on, Deb. Sunday’s supposed to be my day off!
Still, our tradition is quite clear on the subject: “In Jesus Christ, the Church is a royal priesthood in which worship is the work of everyone. The people of God are called to participate in the common ministry of worship.” (W-1.4003) In other words, your office and your title in worship each week, is priest. As a priest, naturally you are expected to work in worship. First and foremost by praying – either aloud or in silence during the prayers of the people. But your worship work has other dimensions as well, like your attentive participation in the reading and interpretation of the Scriptures and your responsibility for congregational singing. “Music is a duty in worship for the same reason that prayer, offering, and study are duties—God commands it and God enjoys it. We are, after all, serving the living God in worship. That’s our job.” And God loves to hear our voices lifted together in praise.
Certainly there has been a trend toward specialization in many fields in recent years; some of this has no doubt rubbed off on the Church. But as Reformed Christians we’ve never had “professional” worshipers who somehow stand apart from “ordinary” worshipers. A spectator sport this ain’t!
Now before anyone gets discouraged, let’s be clear - the work of worship isn’t difficult. And it shouldn’t be tedious. If it is, we’re probably not doing it right, and we’d better get to work on that. “What St. Augustine says about the sacraments applies in reality to all [our worship duties] – ‘very few in number, very excellent in meaning, very easy to observe.’” I’m sure each one of us has something we really enjoy doing, not because there’s no work involved, but because the work required of us is worthwhile and gratifying. Whether it’s gardening, learning to play an instrument or a sport, mastering your chess game, or making your way through that 500-page book you’ve been dying to read. Sure, these things require effort. But the effort pays off, and the work itself is fun. When we gather together each Sunday, “the work God sets out for us is … enjoyable, even celebrative; but it is still work.” And every one of us is called to join in.
I chose our two Scripture texts for this morning because they address two sides of the “worshipful work” equation. Psalm 95 speaks beautifully to this first half – worship as our work, our duty, our primary calling as God’s people. And the kind of duty it is. Mandated, yes, but more privilege than burden. “Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! … Let us [sing] to him with songs of praise! … For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
The Micah passage then enters the picture as one in a long line of Scripture passages addressing the other side of the equation, reminding us that ministry (service) is also itself a form of worship. In other words, if worship is work, work can also be worship.
Worship and service are absolutely intertwined in the Reformed Tradition. According to our Presbyterian constitution - “The rhythm of life of the believer moves [continually] from worship to ministry, from ministry to worship.” (W-5.1003)
Remember, when Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) If loving God in every one of these ways is worship, then we can worship God all the time, everywhere. Simply by putting our minds and our bodies to good work, and by loving one another. The prophet Micah makes much the same point when he says our acts of justice and kindness are as important as our humility before God. Or to quote a child who was asked to define the word mission: “Mission is worshiping God by helping people.”
Work, ministry, service as worship. What’s true of our respective ministries elsewhere is of course true of all those that happen within a church family.
And what is that chief end again? “To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” Our primary work as God’s people is to worship God in everything we do—and to have some fun doing it! We all know endless to do lists can be exhausting. But worshipful work can actually be life-giving.
Today we are celebrating a remarkable individual who has been an example for us all in the area of worshipful work. Certainly it has been a job requirement for John Obourn to prepare and plan for our Sunday services, to select beautiful music and rehearse it with our choir. But you don’t need to have known John for long to know that all of this work he has done so diligently and so faithfully has been done in order to glorify God. Every anthem he has led, every solo he has sung in this sanctuary in his 35 years as our Music Director has been offered in a spirit of worship. And I don’t think it’s any secret how much John has loved this worshipful work, how much joy it has brought to his life. He has modeled for us in a significant way the assignment all of us are given – to glorify God in our worship and to enjoy God’s presence in our lives.
John, you have both inspired and equipped us for this next chapter of our music and worship life as a church family. We move forward with a deep appreciation for music in worship and a strong expectation of musical excellence. You have trained us well! Not only that, but your incredible voice will long echo through these halls. Let’s face it – there are songs for which any version we hear from this point on will pale in comparison to your own rendition! You have graced us with gift upon musical gift in your service to this congregation over the years, and for that we are deeply grateful.
What’s more, I believe John has offered us a further gift simply by modeling the joy he has found in his own worshipful work. And in this – even if we don’t have his musical chops – we can certainly follow his lead.
My prayer for every person in this congregation today is that you might see the work you do as worship. Passive entertainment you can find just about anywhere. You’re here in this room, a part of this church community, because you’ve been called to ministry. And it’s been said that meaningful ministry happens where your deep gladness or joy meets the world’s deep hunger or need. (Buechner)
So what is the worshipful work to which you’ve been called? Enjoy it – and know that God will enjoy it, too, as the offering you present to him. Amen.
 Dean W. Chapman, How to Worship as a Presbyterian, 11
 Chapman 52
 Chapman, 13.
 Chapman, p. 9.
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 what a gift it has been to welcome children in recent years to such a thriving ministry under Lori Sawyer’s leadership. Lori and her team of volunteer teachers have done such a beautiful job of sharing God’s love with every child who comes through these doors, as will Liina-Ly as Interim Director this summer. And I promise you, we on the search team will not rest until we find a new permanent Children’s Director worthy of picking up the baton from Lori, and ensuring that the marvelous momentum in our growing children’s ministry can continue.
Some of you may have heard the phrase “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.
What might that look like? Well, some of us will never forget the Bible stories we heard, or played around with on a flannel graph board as young children, or acted out in a Christmas pageant, or colored on a Sunday School worksheet, or created out of cotton balls or pipe cleaners.
For others of us it might have been the songs we sang in church as kids that really stuck. I imagine I’m not the only one that finds an old hymn or Vacation Bible School or camp song coming to mind when I least expect it – but most need it. In fact, one way to understand “sticky faith” would be like a catchy tune you can’t get out of your head… but in a good way. Something hard to forget, in the best possible sense, and for the best possible reasons.
For some of us, simply sitting in a church pew reminds us of sitting in church with our parents when we were small, following along as their patient fingers traced the words in the hymnal, snuggling together in a form of family time that was unlike others throughout the week, and for that reason all the more special to us. I remember vividly sitting on my dad’s lap in church as a kid. And turning my mom’s wedding ring around and around on her finger. And having them sneak me a Lifesaver candy now and then to help me stay quiet, so I could watch and listen and learn from what was going on around me. It’s amazing how memories like these stick with us, making us want these kinds of experiences not only for our own kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, but for all of the children we see here at church each Sunday that we collectively think of as “ours.”
But I think if I had to pick just one lesson I’d want to stick with our church kids their whole lives long, that verse Alina read for us from I John pretty well sums it up: “See what love [God] has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” (I John 3:1)
The words may have sounded familiar to you, because we say them every time we baptize a child. Often they are quite little when we do this. It’s not hard at all to believe a tiny baby is adored by God. The cuteness factor alone makes it a no-brainer, right?
But it’s not only young children who need that message to stick, and so we said these very same words a couple of weeks ago when we baptized one of our church dads, Kurt. See what love [God] has given us, that we [ALL of us] should be called children of God, and so we are. We need to remember these words as we get older too, and sometimes that’s a whole lot harder. Because there are so many competing voices, telling us conflicting things. Telling us we’re not worthy of love. Or that we are only as valued as how much money we earn or how we dress or where we live.
But these are false messages. Listen again to the simple truth of the matter: we are God’s children simply because God loves us. Period. It’s that simple. No strings attached. No application process or standardized testing required. No dress code or income prerequisites.
We can’t buy God’s love and we don’t have to earn it. What’s truly wild is that we can’t even forfeit it. Like any good parent, God doesn’t stop loving us when we’re crabby, or when we misbehave. And because God’s love is perfect, it doesn’t waver for a minute even if we monumentally screw up. We may have a huge mess to clean up after ourselves sometimes, and some serious apologies or amends to make to those we’ve hurt along the way. But we are no less God’s children, no less loved by God afterwards than we were before a giant mistake.
Again, we don’t have to earn God’s love. It just is. And not only that, but it’s there for us forever. Today some of the sweet children of God we saw run to the front of the sanctuary are 3 and 4 years old. But someday they will be teenagers holding their first set of car keys in their hand, or worrying about something they see in the mirror and don’t like. And someday they will be young men and women eagerly heading off to college, or nervously interviewing for their first jobs. They will remain God’s beloved children in each and every one of those moments, just as we all are. And if they stand in a church like this one to be married someday, or become parents themselves, they can take comfort then, too, in words we had a part in helping to stick, in their minds and hearts: “Behold what love God has for us, that we should be called children of God…” Even when they take their final breath, they will know they still belong to the God who loves them in life, in death, in life beyond death. Just as we all do.
Between now and then, when we remember that we are God’s beloved children, when we really internalize those words, it helps a bit to cushion the blows life tends to throw our way. Because no misguided coach or boss or partner or parent, no one in our peer group – no one, no matter how much they might try to undermine your confidence – can change the fact that you are God’s beloved child.
So let the children come. Children of God of all ages. For we in the church have a message that badly needs to be heard by those who feel unworthy of love the way they are. It’s a message of amazing grace. It’s a message about a God who is always sitting right there next to us, trying to be heard over the negative soundtracks spewed at us by others or playing in our own heads. Gently but firmly reminding us: “It isn’t true, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are less-than. You are more deeply loved than you can imagine, my precious child. Not some better version of you than you seem to manage most days. Not an imagined, less flawed version of yourself. But you as you are. Right now.”
The opening words of our worship service this morning are actually borrowed from a children’s catechism published by the Presbyterian Church. The word ‘catechism’ may call to mind difficult tests on long, complicated statements of doctrine, but this particular document takes a different approach, concentrating on the bare essentials and distilling them into words even a very young child can understand.
Leader: Who are you?
All: I am a child of God.
Leader: Who are we?
All: We are children of God, the family of faith.
Leader: What does it mean to be children of God?
All: We belong to God who loves us and calls us God’s own. In life and in death we belong to God.
We taught these words to children in another congregation years ago, drilling them a bit each week, explaining what everything meant and offering lots of repetition. Months later, well after we’d finished the lesson, one of the moms in the church was having a particularly frustrating day with her pre-teen son, and found herself blurting out to him: “Who are you?”
Can you guess what that young man answered, without missing a beat? “I am a child of God!” There was a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he teased his mom, and as exasperated as she’d been, she was also thrilled. The church had done its job. She had done her job. The message had stuck.
“See what love [God] has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.” (I John 3:1)
Whether you can believe it or not, it’s true: you are God’s beloved child. Whether we are 3 years old or 103, may it be a point of “sticky faith” for us all. One we can’t shake off even when we might be tempted to leave it behind. Lodged somewhere deep within our consciousness like a song we learned years ago for which we still know all the lyrics.
For it is the most beautiful of all possible songs. And when it sticks, its truth will well up in our hearts just when we need it most. Amen.