Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Did you notice what book our first reading came from this morning? Even if you’ve heard those words before, you might not have realized they were from a book called … Lamentations?
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God's] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22-23)
“[Today] is Sunday.” So, Pastor Tony Robinson says, “I … go to worship to get my attitude adjusted, my perspective restored. I … go to be reminded that God's mercies never cease, that God's faithfulness is THE BIG TRUE THING. Left to my own devices I forget this. I tend – like the author of Lamentations – to fix on how things are hard or unfair or just irritating. The Lamenter, in verses just before those [we read today], puts it this way, “Brooding on my anguish and affliction is gall and wormwood. My spirit ponders it continually and sinks within me.”
“That’s a pretty fair description of a spiritual rut to which most of us are prone every now and again. We focus on our grievances, our disappointments, life’s little injustices – and go slowly nuts. It doesn’t mean these aren’t ... real. I’m sure the author of Lamentations had plenty of genuine lament material, and so at times do we. [Heaven knows our world situation has been giving us plenty to lament lately.] And it can be important to tell it like it is, without cover-up.
“But that’s never the whole story,” Robinson continues. “Focusing on our pain and problems, we tend to forget the larger and longer story of mercy. We tend to forget how gracious God has been, and all that we have received that we can’t honestly claim to deserve.”
Our second Scripture lesson too, reminds us that ideal life circumstances are by no means required for us to bear witness to God’s grace. For it was from a Roman prison cell that Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians to rejoice in the Lord, and to focus on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, and excellent.
Life can be hard, sometimes exceedingly hard, it’s true. But it is also true that God can meet us in the midst of hard times, just as God can meet us in the midst of joyful times, and shower us with love and mercy. The important thing for each of us as individuals is to pay attention. To open our eyes and ears. To notice.
It’s also important for us as a church family to share with one another what we notice. Some of you may know the poet Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life?” “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell About it.” It’s good advice for congregations too. “So often…beautiful stories of God float through the church unspoken.” But when we take a moment now and then to share them, what a gift those stories can be.
Earlier this year we started sharing personal stories of involvement here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church, and the difference that has made in individual lives. This fall, we are going to be expanding our storytelling focus in worship, so that you can begin telling one another about other ways you’ve seen God at work in the world, too. The particular story you wish to share might have to do with MPC specifically, or it might not. The only requirement is that whatever brief glimpse of grace you choose to share is “a God thing,” if you will. We’re all going to theologize together, which simply means to engage in God talk.
But to do this successfully, we will first need to pay attention.
Let me give an example from our monthly Session meetings. (Session is just a Presbyterian word for church board.) In our monthly board meetings, I ask our elders to take turns listening for prayer requests – both joys and concerns – as we make our way through the business of that particular day. It’s hard sometimes, for me as the moderator of those meetings, to get us through the agenda in a timely manner and at the same time to notice all of the various ways God has been working in the life of the congregation over the course of a particular month. What an enormous help it can be – to all of us - to have a designated noticer draw our attention to these things as we close out the evening. A designated noticer. When these folks really do their job and pay attention, listening to an entire meeting with a focus on what we should be praying about, we often come away realizing that even things we found challenging were actually gifts in disguise: “Thank you, God, for church members that care so much about each other that each and every death in our church family hits us hard…Thank you, God, for a growing number of children and youth in our church, making it critical that we expand our programming and bring on new staff.”
It’s been said that bidden or unbidden, God is present. So too, noticed or unnoticed, God is always at work. I don’t know about you, but I want to be sure I’m noticing, as often as possible.
Bombarded with bad news as often as we are, I want to start asking myself: Where is the good news? Where can I catch a glimpse of God’s grace and mercy? Where are people acting toward one another in ways that demonstrate what the kingdom of God can be like?
Just imagine all of the different places we could be looking!
It might be something that happens to you personally, or something you witness first hand. A moment that to someone else might not seem that remarkable, but that took your breath away in the conviction that it was a “God thing.” Or a small interaction with a homeless guest at Operation Nightwatch that really stuck with you. Or something your child said about God that kind of knocked your socks off because it was so profoundly true. Or perhaps you have regular opportunities to see in your place of work people quietly living out the gospel, lavishing love and kindness on others. Surely they must be agents of God, who is Love.
And we can notice God at work in other ways too. If you have an artistic bent, you might find a powerful message of God’s grace in a painting, a poem, or a photograph. My husband Ken is forever noticing meaningful truths about God and God’s people in places like popular movies and Sports Illustrated articles. If you are an avid reader, you might find a story of God’s grace in a novel, or in that remarkably good news story that was buried way back in the bottom inches of page 25 in The New York Times. You might even catch a glimpse of God at work in a Facebook post. Because we do tend to notice, don’t we, and really want to share those posts that highlight compassion and kindness, and the kind of self-giving love that Jesus modeled for us? And of course we know that God also speaks to us in the pages of Scripture. How did that familiar Bible passage, or that verse you’d never read before, grab you with a message of God’s grace?
Pay attention. Be astonished. And then tell us about it.
Remember that these God stories, these glimpses of grace, don’t even need to be contemporary examples. Are you an avid reader of history or biography? Tell us where you have found stories of God at work in the lives of others, in any age. There’s no statute of limitations on personal stories either; surely we can all learn as much from a God moment that you experienced decades ago, as from something that happened to you last week.
And where is it written that these God stories must all be happening nearby? God’s world is an awfully big world, with a tremendous amount happening at any given moment. Some of it is quite terrifying, to be sure, but some of it is extraordinarily good. Where are God’s helpers at work in situations of crisis around the world? And where are there small, gentle stories of God’s love among families, friends, and congregations near and far?
If you have a story to be shared, but you prefer not to speak aloud in front of the congregation, I’d be more than happy to share it on your behalf, and you may very well have other friends in the church who’d be happy to share it for you too. This is not an assignment we would ever want to limit to those most comfortable with public speaking. For we might not all be called to speak, but surely we are all called to notice, and to find ways to convey our gratitude for God’s work in our world.
As Frederick Buechner reminds us, “It is absolutely critical…to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present.”
What’s more, if God’s mercies are new every morning, then by definition there is no end to the good news stories we could be telling one another. Stories of God, and Grace, and Gratitude.
So “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell About it.” “[Too] often…beautiful stories of God float through the church unspoken.” But when we take a moment now and then to share them, what a gift those stories can be. Won’t you join me in some good old-fashioned God talk this year?
 Tony Robinson, “Perspective,” from Still Speaking Daily Devotional, October 5, 2013
 Lillian Daniel, Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, p. xiv
 Mary Oliver, “Instructions for Living a Life”
 Lillian Daniel, Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, p. xiv