Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Words matter. We know this to be true everywhere from great works of literature to advertising slogans to personal conversations. Words can tell a story. They can inspire and encourage us. They can frustrate or infuriate us. Even with the best of intentions, when we’re not careful with our choice of words, we can inadvertently cause confusion or even pain. Words matter.
Words in worship matter too. Debra and Ron Rienstra, in their book Worship Words, call us “to renewed appreciation of words in worship: how they bless us and how we can use them well, to the glory of God and for the building up of God’s people.” It is their conviction that, “whether words are scripted or extemporaneous, old or new, formal or colloquial, taken from a service book or composed for the occasion, [worship words] can be done well or done badly. They can serve to heal, feed, and challenge the people of God, or they can bore, confuse, or mislead them.” (Worship Words, p. 19)
I spend quite a bit of time each week trying to select our worship words carefully, for just this reason. As I visited other congregations on my sabbatical this summer, I enjoyed observing how other communities are selecting their own words for worship. And as some of you know, I’ve been reading through a couple of Jewish prayer books in recent months, and sharing with you some beautiful words from those worship resources as well.
From all of these visits and all of this reading, there was one phrase that kept catching my eye as I thought ahead about this sermon for Christ the King Sunday. That phrase in Hebrew is melech ha’olam, “king of the universe.” As in: baruch atah Adonai eloheynu, melech ha’olam…“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe…”
It’s how many Jewish prayers begin, so it’s a phrase that comes up regularly in celebrations ranging from weekly Sabbaths to annual high holy days. It may well have been part of the Passover blessings Jesus said over the bread and the wine before sharing them with his disciples at the Last Supper, a meal we remember and reenact every time we celebrate communion together.
Baruch atah Adonai, eloheynu, melech ha’olam… “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe.” A standard Jewish form of address to God.
I imagine many of us have favorite ways to address God. As a child, especially at church camp and in my grandparents’ churches, I heard a lot of prayers directed to “our heavenly Father.” Pastor Justin often uses a form of this address in his prayers, modeling his language on Jesus’ use of Abba, a term of endearment for ‘father’ or ‘dad’, when he prays “Papa God.” When I worshipped in Episcopal congregations, I recall many prayers beginning with words like “Almighty God” and “Holy God.” These days I find myself often opening prayers with other descriptive terms. I’ll use phrases like “Gracious God,” or “Loving God.”
Each of these forms of address is a perfectly appropriate way to talk to God, of course. All are theologically sound. All have good biblical precedent. But I find it interesting that I don’t often hear Christians using in our prayers that standard Jewish form of address, “king of the universe.”
I wonder why that is?
Certainly the tradition of referring to God as king has a long history in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The psalm we used as our call to worship this morning, for instance, was used in celebrations of God’s kingship in ancient Israel. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.” Those words were said as the ark of God was carried in a grand procession and ultimately entered the sanctuary. Those are the doors and gates in question there. Those verses from Psalm 24 are talking about opening up doors of the sanctuary, so they could carry in this visible sign of the presence of God, the king of glory.
We also heard words about God’s kingship in our first Scripture reading today, from Psalm 97. “The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!... You, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.”
So important was God’s kingship in ancient Israel that the prophet Samuel really resisted the people’s desire for a human king. While it was understandable that they wanted to be like the other nations around them, Samuel knew that human kings would bring with them many dangers, including a growing appetite for power and wealth, and a tendency to take advantage of other people to remain on top. Sure enough, with the rise of the monarchy in Israel came plenty of corruption among its rulers over the years. Of course every other nation in human history has had its issues with power corrupting too! The kingship of God, however, is a far purer form of rule.
As the Christian church took shape in New Testament times, early Christians took pains to point out that Jesus Christ, being God, also ruled as King. So for instance in the book of Revelation we find Christ seated on a heavenly throne, with a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages falling on their faces before his throne in worship. (Revelation 7:9-12) Our reading from Ephesians this morning employs similar imagery in speaking of Christ being “raised from the dead and seated… at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come… all things [are] under his feet.” (Ephesians 1:20-22)
The Sovereignty (or rule) of God is one of the primary teachings of the Reformed Christian tradition too, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part. God’s in charge; God rules; all else is secondary and subject to divine authority and control. This is one of our core beliefs.
But perhaps all this biblical and church historical background only begs the question - why don’t talk we very much these days about God as king? Why don’t we generally pray to God, as our Jewish friends do, as king of the universe?
I wonder if it’s at all connected with our own love of control? The fact that we like to be in charge ourselves? We like to believe we are the rulers and commanders of our lives, the captains of our respective ships. Give us a nice friendly manageable God any day; give us Jesus as our friend and brother, but let’s not get overly excited about God as king. After all, if God is our king, that means we are merely God’s subjects, right?
To be fair, there is nothing about the doctrine of God’s sovereignty or kingship that prevents us from playing an important role in what God’s doing in the world. The key is remembering whose decisions, whose authority is primary, and whose is secondary.
There’s a song in the musical “The Book of Mormon” where mission assignments are being doled out to all of the nineteen-year-old guys, and the young man who’s considered to be the best and brightest among his peers has just been assigned a partner who’s … significantly less impressive, shall we say. So the world’s best young Mormon, if you will, launches into a song about all the incredible mission work he’s going to do. He’s been preparing his whole lifetime for this. He just knows it’s going to be amazing, but he needs to explain to his partner how it’s actually going to work:
“You and me, but mostly me, are gonna change the world forever…
“Cause I can do most anything,” he continues, and his goofy partner chimes in with a grin: “and I can stand next to you and watch!”
“Every hero needs a sidekick, every captain needs a mate, every dinner needs a side dish on a slightly smaller plate…”
The whole song is pretty funny. But you can get the gist of it from that one line, “You and me, but mostly me…”
If you can hang in there with me while I play with that image a bit – this “you and me, but mostly me” idea? - I think in some ways this is the message we can end up conveying to God. You and me, God, but mostly me… I mean, sure, God, you’re in the mix… and I can talk a good story about your kingship, sovereignty, the whole nine yards, but really I’m going to make all the important decisions here. We give lip service to God’s rule in our lives, but do we mean it? For again, being serious about God as our king means obeying orders, living as God’s servants and subjects, and trusting that God has things under control.
And actually when it comes to God, the “you and me, but mostly me” dynamic works in the opposite direction of the way we might find it most comfortable, doesn’t it? The Lord God, king of the universe, who is totally in charge of everything and everyone, can invite us to participate in God’s amazing work in the world, but always with an understanding that we are not the most powerful or effective partner in that relationship. “You and me,” sure, but “mostly me,” says God. Really I’m the one in charge here.
However obvious it should be that God is God – is king of the universe - and we are not, it’s still a humbling reminder whenever it knocks our egos back into place, isn’t it?
But it can also be tremendously freeing.
As William Willimon reminds us, it’s so important as Christians that we regularly ask ourselves: “Who’s in charge here?” All kinds of answers will be suggested to us. For instance, that the wealthy and powerful are in charge. That those who possess vast arsenals of weapons are in charge. That those of a certain political party, or those holding certain governmental positions are in charge.
The Kingship of God also speaks powerfully to us in times when someone or something seems to have us under its control against our will. Christians are not immune to the problems of life; we live in the same world as everyone else. We will inevitably witness tragic situations. We will undoubtedly face dangers that make us wonder if God really is in control.
So it’s a brave thing we proclaim here today. Just as the generals and presidents, the bankers and corporate giants, are not the kings of our universe, so also the terrorists and the drug lords are not king. And cancer and depression and addiction and other agonizing diseases are not in charge. And poverty and racism and violence simply do not have the final say. As Patrick Miller puts it, “The kingship [of God] sets us free from the fear of all lesser lords, [not only those] whom we may serve obediently, and even willingly, [but also those] who may cause trouble and suffering; none of them ultimately rule over us.” (Patrick D. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms, p. 93)
So let’s choose our worship words carefully today. Who’s in charge here? It is Christ our King. It is the Lord our God, melech ha’olam, King of the Universe. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’m a big fan of word pictures, or metaphorical language, so I’ve long enjoyed the language of the Psalms. And around this time of year my thoughts often turn to this particular Psalm of thanksgiving we’ve just heard this morning. Did you catch the wonderful imagery there? Rather than simply using words like sunrise and sunset, the poet says to God: “You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy!” … Can you also see, in your minds’ eye, how many sheep it would take to “clothe the meadows with flocks?” Can you imagine valleys dressed up in grain? Can you picture overflowing wagon tracks and overflowing pastures, just bursting with nutritious food for God’s creatures? “God, you crown the year with your bounty.”
I’m grateful to Anné Wikstrom and Laurie Trettel for the beautiful display on our communion table today, giving that language of abundant harvest and overflowing bounty a visual expression.
We know there is a great deal of need in our world, including practical, material needs for people. Not everyone has access to the abundance we do, and that leaves us with plenty of work to do, doesn’t it? As individuals, as congregations, as cities and nations, we can’t neglect the importance of getting our act together in the sharing and distribution department!
But it’s also important to pause in our efforts now and then simply to notice what we have been given, and to give thanks.
There are all kinds of ways to remind ourselves to be grateful on a regular basis. Some households invite everyone to share at the end of the day, around the dinner table, something they are thankful for. Some people keep gratitude journals, or at least make sure to say a prayer of thanks as they get ready for bed each night.
I’m grateful to our once-and-future Children’s Ministry Director, Liina-Ly, for introducing me last year to a fantastic resource by Ann Voskamp that encourages me to count up 1000 different gifts for which I’m thankful over the course of a year. Each calendar date offers a few specific suggestions that have helped open my eyes to thinking about gratitude in new ways. For instance, one day she encourages the reader to watch for 3 gifts that are heard or overheard, another day for 3 gifts that are blue, other days for 3 gifts in writing or 3 gifts made of cloth or 3 gifts sitting in our kitchen. I confess I didn’t stick with this strategy all year long but it was enormously helpful when I did. Especially if I consulted the list first thing in the morning, so I was prepared for that day’s gratitude search, and then revisited the list in the evening as well. I’d start the day wondering - what might be the 3 gifts I’ll find over the course of the day today, that are picked up or put away? Where might I be surprised by 3 gifts in my work? In my family? Or where will I notice 3 gifts while driving in my car? It’s a valuable tool. To be fair, I didn’t resonate with every single suggestion on Voskamp’s list, but it was easy enough to adapt here and there in ways that spoke to my own heart. I’ve just pulled it out again to keep those kinds of suggestions front and center.
Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any more reminders of what’s wrong with the world. Those seem to come at us with relentless frequency. But I can definitely benefit from reminders to notice what is right in the world. I want to be sure I don’t forget the advice Paul gives in Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) It’s important to note that Paul didn’t have his head in the clouds when he wrote those words. He was actually writing from a prison cell! But even there, especially there, he looked for ways to give thanks. So even when the world is in as much chaos as it clearly is right now, and perhaps especially at such times, we too can look around for reminders to give thanks.
I’m indebted to my sister for finding a beautiful gratitude reminder in the form of this music video we’re going to share with you here in a minute, and I’m grateful to Pete Smith for helping me show it to you today. In this case it’s a resource that’s not specifically Christian – you’ll see interfaith elements as you watch – but I find I’m really grateful for that too. In such divisive times, when it’s far too easy to see one another as “us” vs. “them,” I find myself longing for reminders like this of all we share in common, as members of one human family. You’ll see some lovely hand gestures along the way, as these folks enact their gratitude – hands patted on heads in a kind of universal sign of blessing, sign language thank you’s, joyful dancing, and arms raised to the heavens.
The way I see it, Thanksgiving may be a national holiday rather than a liturgical one, but it certainly provides us in the church with helpful reminders to give thanks to God. So too can tools like this, not made specifically for Christians, offer valuable reminders to us here in this room, to give thanks where thanks is due. Let’s watch it together now.
The gift to realize that everything is a gift…
We offered you a small gift in your bulletin this morning, in the form of these cards with the word “Grateful” on them. They’re meant to call to mind for you that final scene in the video, with the lovely woman hanging the word “Grateful” on her tree of thanks.
My hope is each one of you will take your “Grateful” card with you today and put it somewhere you’ll see it regularly. It could be used as a bookmark, or it could sit on your dresser. It could be tucked into the corner of a mirror, or taped to your front door. It could live in your wallet or your briefcase or your car, on your desk or on your dining room table. It could even migrate over time from place to place. Put it, or bring it with you, anywhere you feel you could use a reminder to be grateful. Anywhere you might not otherwise remember God’s bounty. Anywhere you might be tempted to forget what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
So much of life truly is, as the song says … “A blessing. It’s so amazing.” Let’s be “thankful for it all. For it all.”
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Some of you have heard me share my dad’s favorite line these days. It’s the deceptively simple question, “Compared to what?” It’s useful in all kinds of different situations. Admittedly, it became a favorite line back when we were going through a really tough time as a family, when my mom was battling cancer. “How was your day, Dad?” “Well…Compared to what? Compared to Mom’s day? Or compared to before we got the new medication for her? It’s going fairly well.” That kind of thing. But the same line has come in handy for us as a perspective-giver in all kinds of different settings since. “How was your week, Dad?” “Well, it was a little crazy, but on the other hand, compared to what? Compared to those dealing with hurricane clean-up? Or to families who lost their homes in the fires in Northern California? Then I had an incredibly easy week.”
I told Dad I thought this would be a helpful line to use on Pledge Sunday this year, because whenever we talk about money or giving in the church, it’s important to keep things in perspective. So I’m going to ask for your help saying this with me a handful of times this morning – “Compared to what?” (repeat; explain it’s also sermon title and I’ll cue them to say it as we go along)
It’s not always easy to keep a healthy sense of perspective about pledging and giving. Because anytime someone asks us to give money, whether it is to the church or to another worthy cause, we naturally think about whether we have enough money to give them, and whether giving money away will require that we sacrifice anything ourselves.
And I don’t want to oversimplify here, because we have a wide range of income levels in this congregation. We would never ask anyone to forgo feeding their family to give to the church! Let’s be clear about that!
But even for those of us who, if we’re honest with ourselves, actually have plenty, or even more than enough…With so many voices in our culture inviting us to compare ourselves to those who have more than we do, it’s still easy to feel we don’t have all that much. Especially if our focus is on the salaries of professional athletes or celebrities, or if we spend a lot of time walking by the mansions on Magnolia bluff. But is that really the way we should be thinking about how much we have?
So let’s try our refrain on for size here. How much do we have? “Compared to what?” Well, compared to Bill Gates, not so much. But perhaps a better reality check is to compare ourselves with the guys carrying their trays through the dinner line at Operation Nightwatch, or to parents who can only feed their kids by showing up on a certain day at Ballard Food Bank…or we could compare ourselves to Syrian refugees, fleeing their homes with only the clothes on their backs, or to the thousands upon thousands of kids in Africa trying to raise themselves and their younger siblings with absolutely nothing. Now how much do we have? Let’s try saying our refrain again: “Compared to what?”
There’s a second comparison I find helpful on a day like today. I personally really like turning in my pledge card every year, and like being generous to the church, and to other organizations doing good work in the world. In fact, my husband Ken and I try to give at least 10% of everything we earn in our jobs back to God through the church, and then we give additional money to other groups we like to support as well. But I can run into a different kind of danger. And that’s feeling a little too confident about just how generous I am. You may have heard the expression, “you can’t outgive God?” And it’s true, right? No matter how much I share with others, I won’t come anywhere close to being as generous as God is. Any percent I give back to the church is just that – it’s a percent, a fraction! – of what I’ve been given. We are invited to be generous only because we ourselves have been the recipients of great generosity.
Selfishness and stinginess – those are human inventions. The God we meet in the Bible is all about piling on the gifts! Abundance, not scarcity, is the name of the game. We’re talking about a God who is like a farmer planting seeds, except that he’s a sower wildly tossing seed all over the place, without worrying that it always falls on perfect soil. Or we’re told God is like a father who throws an enormous party and a huge feast to welcome home a prodigal son. This is a God, the Bible says, who throws lavish banquets for anyone and everyone, for that matter – if the expected guests don’t come, no worries; open the doors to those no one thinks to invite to their own dinner parties: the poor, the sick, and the friendless. For that matter, confronted by several thousand hungry people, Jesus doesn’t just provide enough food for them to eat, from a few small loaves of bread and a couple of fish, he makes sure there are 12 big baskets full of leftovers! That’s quite a meal.
Even beyond the Scriptures, all you have to do is look at the wonders of creation for further reminders of God’s over-the-top, ridiculously generous spirit, and to remember the crazy abundance with which he’s constantly throwing gifts at the world. Think about the trees this fall with their breathtakingly brilliant colors. Or do you know I just read recently there are 25,000 species of orchids! 25,000 species of a single type of gorgeous flower? Seriously, God? Now you’re just showing off!
So if I ever catch myself thinking I’m ‘all that’ because I of how much I give, what I really should be doing is asking myself – and here I’ll have you help me by saying our refrain again: “Compared to what?” Compared to greedy, selfish people who seem to grab everything they can get their hands on, and keep it all for themselves? I’d hope we’re all pretty generous compared to that! But compared to God? Not so much. God is the Giver we can never out-give.
I love today’s passage from 2 Corinthians because it reminds us, when we give, to do so cheerfully. The God who so clearly loves to give doesn’t appear to be at all interested in having to twist our arms or drag us kicking and screaming toward the offering plate. God is very interested, though, in giving us opportunities to give… and that’s because God knows how much fun it can be to share! God knows how much joy it can bring our hearts to approach the world from the standpoint of abundance rather than scarcity, and to be able to make a real difference in God’s name. “God loves a cheerful giver, and God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that … you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:7-8)
So this morning when we bring our pledge cards forward at the end of service, I hope you’ll join that “pledge parade” as a joyful giver, a cheerful giver. For how much, really, do we have? [Refrain: Compared to what?] And how generous could we ever possibly be? [Refrain: Compared to what?]
Our middle school and high school students may not know this, but I’ll bet there's an adult or two here this morning who knows that churches are sometimes accused of talking about money too much. It’s an interesting complaint, as I’ve yet to meet a church that talks about money as much as the Bible does. Really! If you simply flipped through looking for references to wealth and poverty, business transactions and money, gifts and giving, abundance and generosity? Or if you even just limited yourself to the words of Jesus, when he talks about money? Try it sometime! You might be surprised how often these things come up.
So how much do churches talk about money? [Refrain: Compared to what?] Compared to what would make us more comfortable, compared to what would make us squirm less in our seats on a Sunday morning – like maybe not talking about money at all? Well, sure, we have a bit to say. But compared to how much the Bible talks about all of this? As I say, it would be the rare church that’s actually keeping up on that score.
Though, to be fair, some are finding memorable ways of trying. In one of the congregations my daughter Alina and I visited this summer, when it was time to collect the offering, they first invited everyone who tithed, or gave 10% of their income, including kids giving 10% from their weekly allowance, to walk to the front of the church and put their offering in the baskets there. And then, as they began to pass the regular offering plates around the congregation, like we normally do, the pastor explained that this was the Sunday they were collecting for their outreach ministries, so he wanted to be sure everyone understood this meant they were really collecting two offerings that day. Now I’ve been to lots of churches over the years, and it’s not at all uncommon to combine offerings like that, so Alina and I each put into the offering plate, as it came by, what we considered a reasonable amount to give to both their general fund and their outreach ministries… only to discover what the pastor actually meant by two offerings was that the plates were coming back around the entire sanctuary a second time! So first people walked forward with gifts to the church, and then the plates came around. Twice! That’s three, count ‘em, three offering collections in a single worship service, and I haven’t even told you yet about the special givers’ covenant (or promise) the whole congregation recited aloud together, before they even began this whole process. They stood together and made promises, declaring the importance of giving their offerings generously to God, promises I think they say together each week.
So … how much do we talk about money, and giving, and pledging here at MPC?
Are you ready for one final refrain? “Compared to what?”