Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I mentioned last Sunday that I attended an Episcopal church for a while when I was growing up. It was there that I learned of a wonderful Christian tradition called “All Saints Day.” It’s a day to give thanks for the lives of faithful men and women who have died, but whose memories live on in the ways they impacted others while they were among us.
Sometimes we focus on the more famous saints. Today, for instance, also happens to be Reformation Sunday, and did you know that this year marks the 500th anniversary of that important day in 1517 when Martin Luther published his 95 theses, or criticisms of the excesses of the Church? It was October 31, 1517 to be exact, so here we are at T minus 2 days until a global 500th anniversary party for the Protestant Church. Because while Luther intended simply to reform the Catholic Church he loved, and to remain part of that same tradition, he set in motion a chain of events which ultimately resulted in what we now call Protestantism. (And incidentally, when you can’t hold yourself back from speaking out against corruption and injustice, remember that the word Protestant comes from the root word protest, and your roots as a protestor go back at least half a millennium!)
Martin Luther was of course only one of a great many famous saints of the Church. Even within his own century there are other heroes of the Reformation too– John Calvin and John Knox being just a couple of the better-known movers and shakers at the time. And then if you think about the centuries of Christendom before and since, not to mention thinking back even farther to biblical men and women of faith … it’s quite a list, isn’t it, even limiting our consideration to saints of God who are widely known?
But I also think back to Pastor Justin’s sermon 4 weeks ago, reminding us of the way Christianity spread throughout the world, not only in broad strokes by big names, like the heroes of the Reformation, but also in long sequences of faithful actions by ordinary Christians. He gave us the whirlwind tour – starting with the Church’s earliest days and a small band of Jesus followers in Jerusalem – and he reminded us that, from there, there were hundreds, thousands of different trajectories that ultimately brought the Church to millions of different places around the world … places like the corner of 28th and Dravus here in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle. Every one of those chains of influence, spanning across time and around the world, had its share of saints too. Some of them only ever known in the specific congregations of which they were a part.
Because the word “saints,” for Protestants, doesn’t carry any superhuman connotations. No miracles are required. And celebrity isn’t a prerequisite either. Simply being a person of God, or a follower of Christ, “counts.” This is why it’s entirely appropriate for us to sing, as we did earlier today, that “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too!”
Here at MPC we call this day of the church year Remembrance Sunday rather than All Saints Day. The word “remember” comes up a lot in the Scriptures. Often in reference to God’s mighty acts in the past, like the story of the Exodus and the Hebrew people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. Over and over, in narrative and in poetry, in their laws and in their Passover worship, the Israelites were called to remember those important events as signs of God’s love and protection. Think God doesn’t hear the cries of the oppressed? Think God isn’t capable of miraculous deeds? Remember, says the Old Testament. Remember the Exodus.
In the New Testament it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that the early church is called to remember, again and again. In the gospels, in their letters to one another, and in their worship as well, as they broke bread together. They remembered Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf, remembered the great miracle of his resurrection, and remembered that he would one day come again, just as we do when we break bread today in our celebrations of communion. Like the memory of the Exodus for the children of Israel, the memory of Christ’s resurrection keeps hope alive, reminding us of God’s tremendous love and unmatchable power. Think God doesn’t understand human suffering? Remember. Remember the cross. Think God is disarmed by evil or defeated by death? Remember. Remember the resurrection!
All of this biblical remembering provides a backdrop, if you will, against which we continue to remember, and on a day like this we specifically remember people of faith who’ve gone on before us.
This morning’s psalm speaks of one generation lauding (or praising) God’s works to another, and of the kingdom of God enduring through all generations. (Psalm 145: 4,13)
I also love this New Testament glimpse, from 2 Timothy, of a particular family’s legacy of sharing faith across generations. Paul writes to young Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5)
Some of you, I know, have been privileged to be nurtured in your life of faith by generations who came before you. At one of our women’s groups earlier this month, a number of you shared what a gift it can be to inherit family Bibles, reminders that you are carrying on a family legacy as you read the Scriptures yourself.
Some of you may not have come to faith through your family, but through a Sunday School teacher, a camp counselor, a youth group leader, a neighbor, or a friend. Surely these influential souls form part of your family of faith, and they may very well be the faces that come to mind when you hear the psalmist speak of one generation praising God’s mighty works to another.
And if you are completely new to church, I can’t stress enough the importance of finding yourself a Christian community where you can feel at home, like part of the family. Stick with the people of God, surround yourself with people of faith, and learn about a few of the more famous saints through the ages while you’re at it. Because none of us are in this thing alone. The Christian life was never meant to be a solo act.
Now think about how your particular “posse,” if you will, your support team in your own Christian life, is multiplied over and over again even right here in this room, as together we each recall who first told us about Jesus or who first taught us to pray. Some of these saints are still living and some have died. But oh, when we picture them all together? And when we picture them flanked on all sides by a great global cloud of witnesses across time? That’s where that final verse of our opening hymn comes in.
From earth’s wide bounds and ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
It’s a glorious vision.
There’s one final invitation I’d like to offer you this morning, in the midst of all this remembering, and that is to remember … the future.
We’ve been taught in order that we might teach. We’ve been
mentored so that we might mentor others. We’ve been supported and prayed for, so that we might support and pray for others coming along after us.
I don’t know about you, but when I’ve read before about grandma Lois and mama Eunice teaching young Timothy, my thoughts have gone immediately to the Loises and Eunices in my own life, in other words my role models in faith. Maybe it’s hitting my 50th birthday this year, but the very same words struck me differently this time. It seems to clear to me now that there’s another message for us here too: For whom are you, for whom am I being that role model, that teacher of the Christian faith?
Likewise, when we hear a phrase like “one generation … to another” in Psalm 145, we’re invited not only to remember backward – the generation that went before us, and helped us learn of God’s mighty acts – but also to remember forward – that we are that generation of proclaimers, teachers of God’s mighty acts, both for those coming after us in our families and for the children of this church. It’s wonderful to remember saints who came before us in this church, but we also need to remember: We are now them. “They” are us.
Wow… If that feels like a pretty big responsibility, it is!
The song we’ll be singing in a moment expresses that responsibility in the form of a prayer:
May all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
May all who come behind us find us faithful.
So today I invite you to remember…
Remember the saints of God, both those virtually everyone has heard of, and those virtually no one has heard of - but whose influence has made a huge difference in your life. Remember saints “who from their labors rest,” and those still doing remarkable things in our world today. Remember those who’ve worshipped in this very room in years past, and remember those worshipping right alongside you this morning.
And then … remember the future. Remember that for our church kids, as Carly Simon sings, “these are the good old days.” Because today, in 2017, 500 years after Martin Luther did his thing, the children of this congregation are right now learning about being people of God by watching all of us. They are right now building memories they’ll call to mind along their respective journeys of faith for decades to come.
So let’s show them what it means to be saints of God. Let’s model for them what was modeled for us – or what we wish was modeled for us – to help them understand what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Let’s demonstrate what it looks like to worship and to pray, to study and to serve, to practice what we preach and live what we believe. For that matter, let’s model what it means to embrace our identity as Protestants in this 500th anniversary year, and let’s keep on protesting the injustice and corruption we see in our world.
We needn’t worry that we have to get it right all the time. Some saints are more saintly than others, you might say, but we’re all flawed and broken in one way or another. The good news is God absolutely loves to work with hot messes like us. One of my friends recently paraphrased in a sermon a line from the movie “Elf,” the part where Will Farrell’s character says “I love smiling! Smiling’s my favorite!” She put these words in Jesus’ mouth: “I love the broken ones. The broken ones are my favorite!” (Rev. Adrienne Schlosser-Hall)
Yes, Jesus loves us, broken ones all.
And we have a rich legacy to carry on.
When it comes right down to it, friends, “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” How about you?
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In conversation with a few of you after church last Sunday, I explained the way my first few sermons seemed to come together this fall. The first was prompted by something I heard on my sabbatical (the soundtrack to that amazing musical “Come from Away”), the second by something I read (which is why we heard from Mma Ramotswe in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency book series last week), and this third sermon was prompted by someplace I went.
I visited quite a number of congregations, and I expect you’ll hear about others of them later in the year. But the biggest surprise came on the very last Sunday I was away, at the end of September.
I’d been hearing for years about the Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral, compline simply meaning a service of evening prayers, said or sung before retiring for the night. I’d long heard that the music from the men’s choir there was quite something. And I’d attended Episcopal churches when I was younger, so I also knew a bit about the compline order of worship, the beautiful prayers and sung Psalms and so on. All that was missing was a Sunday night my husband Ken and I actually had enough energy to be out and about at 9:30 or 10 pm (since our Sundays as pastors tend to start pretty early). So I wanted to be sure we got there during my time off.
As you already know if you’ve ever been to that service at St. Mark’s, or heard it broadcast on the radio (have you?), we were indeed treated to gorgeous music, in a contemplative setting. That wasn’t the surprise.
Actually, there were two surprises. The first was that we’d learned from the website that the cathedral was undergoing renovations, but we had no idea until we got down there just how substantial those renovations were. I know things are a little chaotic around here with our plumbing project underway, but over at St. Mark’s? Wow! We’re talking massive scaffolding inside and out, major disruptions to parking areas and to entrances and exits, making it quite difficult for us as newcomers to find our way in, and then when we entered the sanctuary, enormous swaths of plastic sheeting everywhere, covering huge windows which were apparently in the process of being replaced. As it was late September at this point, this made for a chilly arrival at 9:30 at night, inside the huge stone sanctuary. And then there was the issue of noise. St. Mark’s is the big church building you see up the hill as you are driving through downtown Seattle on I-5. It’s really rather close to I-5, and think about the way sound carries. Again, no glass windowpanes, just plastic sheeting. So as we waited for the service to begin, our musical “prelude,” if you will, was freeway traffic, and helicopters overhead, and sirens, and cars going by in the neighborhood. Quite understandable, obviously, under the circumstances, but also quite a surprise, since we’d been prepared for quiet that night. Still, it was a powerful reminder that the God we were coming there to worship has our whole world in his hands – a world that is very often not quiet, as people rush around in their cars, dealing with traffic and deadlines, and as medivac choppers fly people overhead to the regional trauma center at Harborview Hospital.
The second surprise was the congregation itself. It was much larger than we expected, for that hour of night, and a stunning percentage of those present were young adults. Now Ken and I have read and heard any number of so-called experts on church growth over the years, often specifically on reaching out to younger generations, and this flew in the face of everything we’d been taught. And I’m not just talking about the stereotypical expectation that younger people can’t handle traditional church music, though we do hear that a lot, that you’re never going to attract teens or college students to church without a praise band. Well, obviously those kinds of worship services do appeal to a segment of the younger population. But this was a far cry from drums and guitars and a big screen in front of an auditorium; we’re talking ancient monastic chants in a stone cathedral.
Even more surprising to me (since I like to give people of all ages credit for being open to different types of music), was the lack of clear instructions about the service itself. There was no bulletin, and they didn’t seem to be following the prayer book in our pew. There were no opening announcements or words of welcome and no explanations of what we were supposed to do when (Would we participate in some of the singing, we wondered? Would we simply listen?) And then there was a point in the service when everyone stood up around us, seemingly with no prompt to do so. As professional worship leaders, you can see how this kind of thing would throw us off! We try very hard to design services that are welcoming to those unfamiliar with our traditions. And we especially try to avoid “high context” moments, when a newcomer walks into a situation and everyone else seems to know what to do, but they don’t, and no one bothers to explain. “Whoops, I guess they forgot about that,” we thought in the first several minutes. “Isn’t it too bad that they aren’t helping along those of us who are visitors tonight?”
BUT… here’s what was so humbling about the whole experience for us. Even with all of those complicated variables – sirens and car alarms competing with the pitch pipe as acapella choral music began, a complete lack of directions on how the service worked, difficulty finding the front door, and a chilly fall night in a stone building with no glass in the windows, people kept streaming in.
And sure, we might not have known to stand or sit at particular times, or how exactly the service would unfold, but I’ll tell you what – the young woman in front of us with bright purple hair knew, and so did the teenage girls who were kind of curled up in the seat behind us, resting their heads on the back of their pew as they listened, and so did the kilted young man at the end of our row who was completely bald except for his Mohawk and his long braided beard. Without any sort of bulletin, prayer book, or script in front of him, he recited aloud any number of those prayers. And how moving it was to watch group after group of 20- and 30-somethings come in, as the service went on, carrying blankets and pillows up to the very front of the sanctuary, to sit together on the front steps or even lie down on the stone floor, looking up at the ceiling or closing their eyes, to soak it all in.
The outside noise was a little distracting at times, but there were also moments when the music – just from those choral voices - would overpower it dramatically. It truly was a memorable experience, and I commend it to you. In fact, later today I’ll send out the link to a video about the compline service at St. Mark’s, so you can at least get a sense of what it’s like, even if you can’t make it in person. (http://www.saintmarks.org/experience/worship/compline/)
The surprise takeaway for us as pastors, then, was simply this. In spite of a number of technical difficulties, and in spite of not following the rules we’d been taught about how to attract people to church, St. Mark’s is clearly filling an enormous need by offering that sacred space and sacred music every Sunday night.
We also noticed that the service didn’t ask anything of us. It didn’t require our active participation. While this too threw us off our game a bit – after all, we Presbyterians are big on worship being the work of the whole people of God! – it was also a gift simply to receive it. The whole service was a benediction of sorts, a blessing. The body language of those around us spoke volumes. We saw postures of absorbing, basking, receiving those prayers, that music, those holy moments. It was as if our fellow worshippers were plants leaning toward the light, or for that matter Pacific Northwesterners feeling the sun on their faces after a long grey winter… they were absolutely soaking it in.
Our texts for this morning are just two of many blessings included in the Scriptures. The first, a priestly benediction from the OT in Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26) The second, the line with which Paul closes his letter to the Philippians in the NT: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Phil 4:23)
Tony Robinson, former pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church here in Seattle, used to say to a pastors’ group I was in: “We don’t offer people enough blessings.” By this he simply meant that (for lots of good reasons) we as pastors try to challenge our congregations, we try remind each another of our responsibilities and our calling as disciples, to live in God’s ways and to work for God’s justice … but how often do we allow people to simply absorb or receive, to soak in a holy moment? How often do we allow ourselves, for that matter, simply to sit in the presence of God and receive a blessing? Certainly sometimes we need a rousing call to action, or to be nudged out of our comfort zones, but then at times we also need just to be still and listen for the voice of God, or to remember that Jesus also reaches out to us “softly and tenderly,” as we sang together a few moments ago.
Our last two sermons here contained reminders to do the Christian life - to act in love, for instance, and to show gracious hospitality to strangers. But those kinds of messages are incomplete without this balancing word. We need to receive God’s grace in order to share it, and it’s not only acceptable but important to seek out holy moments and grace-filled benedictions, to rest in or soak up the very love of God we want to share.
In some congregations I’ve been part of, folks stand with their hands open and outstretched, like this, a physical sign for them of receiving the benediction at the end of worship. Not all of us are comfortable with physical demonstrations of what’s in our hearts, but I suspect even the introverts among us might be kind of doing this on the inside, right? Again, we probably don’t bless each other often enough, don’t allow one another opportunities simply to receive a prayer, a benediction, a sign of God’s grace. So that our hearts, if not our hands, might well be reaching out for it when it comes, in at least that one predictable spot, at the end of each Sunday’s service. Think about the ways the “passing of the peace” offers us opportunities for blessings to be given and received each week too. I know I sometimes use that time to welcome someone I haven’t met before, and maybe you do too, but let’s not miss the opportunity to look people in the eye and wish them God’s peace as well. I don’t know anyone who can’t use that blessing, that peace. As Liina-Ly pointed out in her children’s time this morning, the litany of parting we do with the kids each Sunday gives us an opportunity to bless each other as well.
My Magnolia colleague Marilyn Cornwell, rector at Church of the Ascension, is known for signing off letters and emails with the reminder: “We are blessed to be a blessing.” For when we do feel grace-filled, and refreshed, and fed, when we are able to soak in those holy moments, or to receive a meaningful blessing, it can kind of spill over to those around us.
I guess it was just a couple of days later, after that service at St. Mark’s, that I found myself taking a short walk at Greenlake. And then I found a bench, and just sat there for a bit, looking at the sunshine sparkling on the water, feeling the sun on my face, enjoying the leaves beginning to change color, and thinking all the while about that memorable benediction I’d received in the form of compline service at St. Mark’s. Pretty soon, without even really thinking about it, I realized I had started saying little silent blessings for all of the people walking by. Because, really, who among us doesn’t need a blessing? So God bless the young mom pushing her newborn in a stroller, I thought, because heaven knows that was a hard stage of life: “the Lord bless you and keep you.” And God bless the high school kids running around the lake for PE credit, because life can be awfully tough at that age too: “The Lord make his face to shine upon [each one of] you and be gracious to you.” God bless the gentleman with grey hair who’s got walking shoes on with his business clothes, clearly trying to catch a short break and take care of himself, in the midst of a full workday: “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you.” And God bless the younger guy who’s pulling his aging golden retriever in a wagon, to give his furry friend a blessing of his own: “may the Lord give you [both his] peace.”
Naturally I can’t remember to do this constantly, in every moment of every day, and as I say, it’s easiest to do this when you’ve recently had your own blessing tank refilled. But when you have, it’s kind of fun to try this out. It’s related, I suppose, to the old reminder to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Or perhaps to the Quaker practice of holding someone in the light. In the midst of rush hour traffic some morning, try catching a glimpse of a nearby driver or two, imagine how their days may have begun, and say a blessing for them: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Say a blessing for the big bunch of kids goofing around at the bus stop: “The Lord make his face to shine upon you”… and another for the student standing at a distance by herself. “May the peace of Christ be with your spirit, sweet girl.” Pray God’s blessing on a family member or a friend. Not even a fully formed prayer of petition, I suppose a benediction is more about simply asking that they would feel God’s presence with them. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
After all, who among us doesn’t need a blessing? But then again, where could we ever go, where we would not already be standing on holy ground?
God bless us, everyone.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’m not sure if any of you are fans of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series by Alexander McCall Smith? Or perhaps you watched the HBO television series of the same name? If so, you’ve met Precious Ramotswe, the memorable protagonist who lives in Gabarone, Botswana, in southern Africa. Mma Ramotswe, as she’s often called (“Mma” being a respectful Botswanan greeting for ladies) is a strong, resilient woman with a knack for solving mysteries of all kinds. For those of us who enjoy the characters in mystery stories far more than the details of a homicide, Mma Ramotswe is our kind of detective. She is far more likely to tackle things like fraud and infidelity, lost persons and lost possessions, than she is to investigate a murder. Well known in her community for her deep sense of right and wrong, and her unshakable loyalty to family, friends, and her beloved country, she marshals intelligence, wit - and a willingness to bend the rules when necessary – to solve mysteries both great and small.
There’s another quality of Mma Ramotswe that draws many of us to her, as readers, and that is her huge heart. She truly cares about distressed clients, particularly those who have been hurt by someone else. She adores her family, she would do anything for her friends, she demonstrates patience and grace with co-workers, clients, and neighbors, and while she makes as many mistakes as the next person, she is quick to apologize when she has not acted with enough kindness or understanding in a particular situation. We might not be able to quite imagine ourselves tackling her range of cases, some of which involve crocodiles and many of which involve long solo drives out into the African bush in a rickety old van. And we might not condone every one of her unorthodox tactics. But we can admire the heart she demonstrates, time and again. I believe it’s that heart, coupled with her strength and resilience, her creativity and her persistence, that keep us coming back for more.
I had a chance to reread a few books in this series on my sabbatical – I find they’re perfect for cross country plane trips, and I enjoy revisiting Botswana now and then with Mma Ramotswe. As I did so, there was a particular scene I knew right away I wanted to share with you when I came back this fall.
You see, Mma Ramotswe – who also occasionally drifts off into deep thought - is talking with a friend of hers, a bishop, over tea outside the Anglican Cathedral one Sunday morning after the seven thirty service in English and before the nine thirty service in Setswana. “Is it true,” she had asked, “that the sun will [one day] swallow up the earth and that will be that?” The bishop had smiled. “I do not think that is going to happen in the near future, Mma,” he had replied. “Certainly not by next Tuesday, when the Botswana Mother’s Union meets. And, frankly, I don’t think that we should worry too much about that. Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know.
“There is plenty of work for love to do. That was a wonderful way of putting it, and she had told him that this could be the best possible motto for anyone to have.”
There is plenty of work for love to do.
I find it curious that love is so often portrayed simply as a feeling, and that in our culture we speak of falling into love and falling out of love as a sort of abstract state, when the Scriptures remind us that love is an action word, a verb. 1 Corinthians 13, for instance, a much-loved text about love that is read at many weddings, speaks of love requiring patience, kindness, truth-telling, forgiveness. This isn’t love in the abstract; this is “love with its work clothes on,” as Martin Copenhaver puts it - “not an emotion but a form of life that is self-giving.”
What’s more, our text from 1 John today reminds us that love is absolutely essential to our life in God. “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)
And Mma Ramotswe’s bishop was right; there is certainly no shortage of ways to put God’s love into action.
On the one hand, that there is plenty of work for love to do can be overwhelming. Pay even cursory attention to the news – Dear, God, the news! – and it’s tempting to give up in despair. It’s all too big, too vast; there are too many people hurting, there is too much need.
On the other hand, plenty of work for love to do can actually be somewhat freeing, if looked at in a different way. Certainly there’s way too much for any one person or any one church, or for that matter any denomination or even any nation to tackle on its own. But plenty to go around also means there’s a bit of it for you to do, and a bit for me to do, and there’s not a single individual or organization in the world that can’t find a piece of love’s work to take on. We don’t have to look far to find our place.
That there is plenty of love’s work to go around also provides opportunities for people to come together, at our most ecumenically cooperative and interfaith best, as we’ve seen for instance in support for the Interbay Tent City right at the bottom of our hill. And that’s just one example. As I mentioned last week, it was a great privilege to visit congregations all over our city this summer and to see amazing outreach ministries happening in churches and synagogues… we know wonderful work is also happening through local mosques and through neighborhood associations and schools… and through corporate giving and through some remarkable nonprofit organizations.
Have any of you visited the Gates Foundation visitor center? They do a fantastic job not only of opening our eyes to just how much work needs to be done in the world, but of reminding us that every single one of us has gifts and skills that can be used in that work. Whether we are by nature and training a teacher an artist, or an engineer, whether we are skilled at building or marketing or networking, cooking or writing legal briefs, whether we are public speakers or behind the scenes organizers, the Gates Foundation Visitor Center shows you all kinds of concrete examples of how you can employ your gifts and skills in addressing urgent needs in our world. After all, there is plenty of work for love to do.
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives us in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)
Of course, I don’t need to tell you this, you who are already busy with beautiful works of love. Talk about preaching to the choir! I look around this morning and I see a congregation full of hearts as big as Mma Ramotswe’s, who know very well that love is a verb and needs to be verbed, needs to be enacted, to be worth anything at all. I ran across a lovely prayer in a Hebrew prayer book recently that said, “let my hands know the privilege of righteous deeds.” I know that many of you do know that privilege, and are putting your love for God into action by loving others in God’s name.
We’ve even been able to witness great acts of love in the news recently. In the face of devastating storms and fires and horrific acts of violence, we’ve also seen people pulling together, and giving of themselves, and taking great risks to take care of each other. A recent Time magazine essay put it this way. “We’re so hungry for goodness, for common cause, for reasons to like each other” after all of the “ugliness, division, and fear” in recent years, that it’s no surprise people “keep watching video footage … of rescue after rescue, kindness after kindness.” In fact, the author invites us to watch some of those early storm videos out of Texas occasionally, to be reminded of our better angels. “Over and over, you’ll hear people being reassured as they are supported by the arms of [complete] strangers, [strangers who don’t look like them or sound like them or vote like them]. The strangers are saying to each another: ‘We’ve got you… I’ve got you… you’re OK…” Similarly I read just this week about shooting victims in Las Vegas trying to track down total strangers who saved their lives by rushing them into their own cars, and getting them quickly to the hospital for help. And we can be sure there are countless acts of courage and kindness happening right now in Northern California, too, in the midst of the wildfires there.
When that Time magazine essayist reminds us to remember “our better angels,” we in the Church know that impulse to be kind to one another, to love each other, comes from God. And like many types of good news, we also know that reaching out in love is happening in our world far more often than it’s getting press coverage. After all, while some works of love are more public and visible in nature, others are less well known. Quiet faithfulness month after month and year after year in providing a feast through Operation Nightwatch, for instance. I’m humbled by those of you who have been devoted to that ministry for so long. Or even among our friends and neighbors, a thoughtful phone call, a well-timed card, a visit, a hug, a meal, a prayer… these can all be acts of love too. It’s no less important to do these things as news cycle after news cycle crashes over us or as we feel overwhelmed by the latest tragedy. I think it’s all the more important, actually.
In response to the awful news out of Las Vegas two weeks ago, Whitworth University posted on Instagram a quote from the band Joseph: “All I know is take care of each other.”
I’m trying to add that line to my mental playlist too, as I navigate my way through our present world, full as it is of heartache and need. For it’s also a world that is precious to God, loved by God, and equipped by God with a great many people verbing God’s love, in acts of kindness and compassion.
All I know is take care of each other.
Love is from God.
And there is plenty of work for love to do. Amen.
 Alexander McCall Smith, Teatime for the Traditionally Built, pp. 55-56.
 Martin Copenhaver, “Love with its Work Clothes On,” Journal for Preachers Easter 2011, p. 21ff.
 Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur, Weekdays and Festivals, p. 35
 “The Pursuit of Happy-ish” by Susanna Schrobsdorff, in Time, September 18, 2017, p. 115.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Since this was my first full week back, following my sabbatical, today’s sermon title – “Come from Away” – might sound like a reference to my own status as a recent returnee. After all, I have been away, and now I’m here.
As it turns out, “come from away” does relate to my sabbatical, though not primarily in that sense. But we’ll get back to that in a few minutes. First, let me tell you about “Come from Away,” the Broadway musical. (Has anyone seen it? Or heard the soundtrack?)
I’m indebted to my 18-year-old daughter Alina for introducing me to quite a lot of musicals this summer. She is an absolute Broadway fanatic these days, so anytime we were driving around in the car, or hanging out at home, there’d be a soundtrack playing. She’d show me video clips of her favorite songs online too, whenever she managed to find one performed live at the Tony awards, for instance, or on a morning news program. So let me just say: if there are other Broadway fans out there, I speak your language now; let’s talk!
At any rate, one of the shows getting a lot of attention this year has been “Come from Away.” It’s based on the true story of an important moment in time when the isolated community of Gander, Newfoundland played host to the world. What started as an average day in a sleepy town turned in to an international sleep-over when 38 planes, carrying something like 7,000 people from all across the globe, were diverted to Gander’s air strip on September 11, 2001. Undaunted by culture clashes and language barriers, the people of Gander not only fed, clothed, and housed the stranded travelers for close to a week, but offered them compassion, friendship, humor, music, and other comforting reminders that we’re all part of one global family.
Hard as it is to resist playing you the entire soundtrack right now, I’ll do my best to convey the gist here (but please listen to it yourself as soon as you can). The opening song sets the stage, as a narrator begins:
On the northeast tip of North America,
on an island called Newfoundland, there's an airport.
It used to be one of the biggest airports in the world,
and next to it is a town called Gander.
And then the whole cast starts singing:
Welcome to the Rock, if you come from away,
You'll prob’ly understand about half of what we say.
They say no man's an island but an island makes a man,
Especially when one comes from one like Newfoundland.
Welcome to the Rock
(“The Rock” just being their nickname for their island.)
Various characters then take turns telling us what they were doing when they first heard the news about the Twin Towers in New York, and when they first saw those planes touching down on their air strip, and in between each introduction, the group sings together a powerful refrain:
I’m an islander, I am an islander. I'm an islander, I am an Islander.
We soon find out what it means to be an islander as they add:
Welcome to the land where the winters tried to kill us
and we said, "we will not be killed."
Welcome to the land where the waters tried to drown us
and we said, "we will not be drowned."
Welcome to the land where we lost our loved ones
and we said, "we will still go on"
Welcome to the land where winds tried to blow, and we said "No!"
This is an incredibly resilient bunch. Not much would normally faze them. But even they are thrown by the magnitude of the challenge that’s suddenly before them. 7,000 terrified passengers on 38 jumbo jets, all suddenly grounded…in an airport that normally sees maybe 5 or 6 planes a day… and all those stranded people, from all around the world, are here in their small Canadian town for who knows how long. American air space was entirely shut down, as you may remember. Yet they sing on:
If you're hoping for a harbor then you'll find an open door.
In the winter, from the water, through whatever's in the way,
to the ones who have come from away,
Welcome to the Rock!
The town of Gander’s hospitality, their immediate, massive, all-embracing welcome of those “from away,” then forms the storyline for the rest of the musical. Toward the end, in a scene set years later, one of their 9/11 guests -
one of the “plane people” as the locals call them - asks a Gander native who has become a good friend: “Why are Newfoundlanders terrible at knock knock jokes?” “I dunno, Hannah.” Why? “Well, try it – I’ll be a Newfoundlander.” OK… “Knock Knock.” “Come on in! The door’s open!” (The normal “who’s there?” response being entirely unnecessary for these folks, right?)
“I’m an islander, I am an islander” they sing, and they know just what that means. It means resilience, and hard work. It means hospitality and welcome, and a healthy sense of perspective. It means if someone needs help, you simply help. And on September 11, 2001, that communal identity allowed regular, down to earth folks from Gander to welcome thousands of tired, terrified, frightened airline passengers with open arms.
“I’m an islander. I am an islander.” They sing it over and over again, with a steady Celtic drum beat in the background. “I’m an islander. I am an islander.” And you can’t help but understand that each time they say it, what they’re really saying is, “This is who we are. This is what we do.”
When Alina played the soundtrack for me for the first time this summer, I literally got goosebumps. Because, I thought, they’re singing about the Church! The Church at our best, I mean. In the moments we get it right. On the days we know that one of the most important things we can do is to extend to anyone who “comes from away” our most generous hospitality and welcome. We too know about sharing music and friendship and humor here in our little community, both in good times and when the storms of life are raging, and we know how to roll up our sleeves and get to work helping those who need help. We too know how to convey “who cares where you’re from; we’re all family here.”
“I’m an islander, I am an islander.” I like to think that we as people of faith can draw on a strong sense of our identity, just like those folks from Gander. For what are we doing here every Sunday if not reminding ourselves who we are and what we’re here for? We are a loved, flawed, and forgiven people, part of a wonderfully human, down to earth community of our own, called and sent by our amazing God to show his love - not to keep the rest of the world out, but precisely to invite them in. When we own what it means to be followers of Christ, and regularly practice our parts, we too can be ready at a moment’s notice to lend a hand.
Now I promised I’d tell you how today’s sermon title was actually connected to my sabbatical after all. And it’s pretty simple, really. My daughter Alina and I, who for so long had played hosts here on Sunday mornings, had all these opportunities to be guests in worship in other places over the last few months. It threw us off a little at first; we’d laugh about how during the passing of the peace (the part of the service where we all shake hands and greet each other) we had to remember not to say “welcome!” to unfamiliar faces – after all, they were probably longtime members of their respective congregations, and we were the ones “from away.” And admittedly it can be a little awkward at times to be the stranger, even when all you’re doing is visiting a new church.
But I am happy to report that the spirit of hospitality is alive and well in congregations around our city and across the country – as is a broader sense of welcome, of being helpers and do-ers and problem-solvers, and reaching out in all kinds of creative, meaningful ways to those in need. For all that we hear in the news these days about those who want to chase outsiders away or keep them out, there really are an awful lot of people who know how to welcome, and to welcome well, those who “come from away.” It did my heart good to see it, everywhere we went.
We have some beautiful vocabulary for this in the Church, don’t we? In fact, it’s a unified, consistent message across both testaments, Old and New. Back in Deuteronomy, the Hebrew people were commanded by God to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) In Leviticus they were reminded: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The [one] who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love [him] as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:33) Later on, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” says Jesus in the gospel of Matthew; “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35, 40) In this morning’s text from Ephesians, we find a reminder to the early church that Gentile Christians, who at that time had been feeling like outsiders, were just as much a part of God’s family as those of Jewish background: “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19) And of course in our reading from Hebrews, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” or as the King James Version puts it, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)
“Come from Away” was written about a powerful experience 16 years ago, but with refugees from so many places here in the US today, it’s timeliness is deeply moving as well. In response to these newcomers, how do we as the Church show the world who we are and what we’re made of? Are we making the same kind of impression as the good people of Gander, Newfoundland?
Even in a more symbolic sense, there are an awful lot of weary travelers outside these walls who could use a warm welcome. Let’s celebrate our identity as people who know what it means to welcome those who “come from away.”
I invite you to listen to that powerful refrain again, from the opening song of this memorable musical, and this time try to imagine yourself as one of those ordinary folks from Gander, watching 38 planes touch down on your doorstep.
Welcome to the Rock … an islander, I am an islander.
“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”
Welcome to the Rock … an islander, I am an islander.
“Love the stranger, for you were once strangers in Egypt.”
Welcome to the Rock … an islander, I am an islander.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.”
Welcome to the Rock … an islander, I am an islander.
“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Welcome to the Rock… an islander, I am an islander.
I’m an islander, I am an islander.
Welcome to the Church.
This is what we do, people of God. This is who we are. Amen.