Sermons from September 19 - October 17, 2021 will take the form of a close reading and Bible study of the Old Testament book of Ruth.
Because Rev. Sunoo will use extensive teaching notes vs. a sermon manuscript, sermons will not be posted here as usual, but teaching notes can be provided on request. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to ask for a copy.
Act One: One of Them (Ruth 1)
Act Two: One of Us (Ruth 2)
Act Three: About Last Night (Ruth 3)
Act Four: A Happy Ending? (Ruth 4)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
No matter how long it’s been since we sat in a classroom, the back-to-school season can inspire any of us to want to learn something new. In my family we often talk about having a growth mindset: intentionally seeking out new information, new perspectives, new skills, and doing so across a lifetime. I’ve witnessed a similar dynamic here at church: that desire to be a community of lifelong learners. We know there’s a lot we don’t know, but we’re eager to address those gaps. In Bible studies and book groups. By bringing in guest speakers and paying visits to other houses of worship.
I find it exciting knowing I’ll never run out of new things to learn or new people to learn them from. I also find it humbling, and never has that been truer than over the past few years as I’ve begun to realize just how much I’d limited myself as a learner in the first 50-some years of my life. By accepting the basic storyline of my American history textbooks in school, for instance, rather than digging deeper. By not being bothered – not even noticing much of the time, if I'm honest – that the vast majority of preachers I’d heard, and authors I’d read, and entertainers I’d enjoyed were white. By not recognizing the design flaw in brainstorming with church and presbytery groups over the years about big plans and projects, when most of my conversation partners were people who looked and sounded a whole lot like me and whose life experiences were very similar to my own.
These are just a few of the ways I’ve limited my education, however inadvertently. As I’ve begun more intentionally to diversify everything from my reading lists to my Netflix queue to speakers I’m signing up to hear, it becomes clearer to me all the time what a lot I have to learn. And as I reflect on things God has taught me over the years by bringing Scripture texts into conversation with sermons and screenplays, for instance, and with books and blogs and Bible studies, I think of that beautiful verse in Hebrews about the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me in my journey of faith (Hebrews 12:1). You might say I’m trying to pay more attention these days to faces in the cloud that look less like mine.
This morning’s psalm has us praying to God to be learners: to be shown God’s ways, taught God’s paths, to learn God’s truth. And it specifically lifts up the importance of humility: God “leads the humble in what is right,” we read in verse 9, “and teaches the humble his way.” (Psalm 24:9) It’s important to admit there is a great deal we don’t know. Even within the subset of things we’ve learned at some point, there are things we haven’t studied long enough or internalized thoroughly enough to know them well, or things we may have once learned but have since forgotten. All of this provides us with ample opportunity to continue our education. And then - this may be the most important piece – how many lessons have we learned, but not quite well enough to act on them? Things we know in our heads but haven’t followed up on with our feet?
Speaking of feet, I’m struck not only by multiple references to paths and ways here in Psalm 25 and elsewhere in the psalms but also by how often Jesus taught his first disciples while walking around. To obey his command to “follow me” meant physically moving from one place to another. What if being led along God’s path, even now, requires us to move? Are we being invited to exercise new muscles? Walk in new ways? Move into new territory?
It seems to me all truth is God’s truth so we’ll want to seek out as much truth as we can. And it helps to go straight to the source when we want to learn something new. Just as it’s best to learn about Judaism directly from our Jewish neighbors and about Islam from those who are themselves Muslim, we’ll want to learn about the biggest challenges in our community from those closest to the situations. Rev. Tali Hairston reminds us we can sit around with our friends at church wondering what’s needed, but we could also ask people who are already on the ground, doing the work, and know. Surely God can speak to us through their voices too. And maybe there are opportunities to lend support to amazing work that’s already happening nearby.
What if we started moving around our neighborhood and our city asking God to introduce us to those in the know. Watching for ways to come alongside and learn from them and be transformed. We’ve already done a bit of this through partnerships with organizations like the Ballard Food Bank and World Relief. What else might we learn from them? Who else might God have in mind to teach us? And where might God help us lean into our learning with our footsteps: “Show me your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me.” (Psalm 25:4-5)
It’s been said that when a moment demands something of you it’s too late to get ready; it simply reveals who you are. From a global pandemic to ever more serious indications of climate change to new eruptions of anti-Asian violence and ongoing police brutality against Black lives, the last few years have revealed a lot. About each of us as individuals. About our nation. About the Church. I’m not proud of how I had to scramble to meet the moment of George Floyd’s death, for instance, un-ready as I was to lead conversations we as a church probably should have had long ago. Looking back, it’s easy to get caught up in should-haves and could-haves and why-didn’t-I’s. But in the absence of time machines, we can only improve moving forward. So we grieve and we repent and, hopefully, we learn.
A couple years ago our choir introduced us to a song with these memorable lyrics addressed to God:
You make all things new;
You make all things new;
In places we don’t choose,
You make all things new.”
Anne Lamott makes a similar point this way: “Most of my spiritual breakthroughs have been against my will.”
But as we heard in today’s call to confession, sometimes a path can become clearer to us after we first get it wrong. Failure can help us learn. With humble hearts and teachable spirits, we’re invited to bring our mistakes before our merciful God, asking for forgiveness and looking for opportunities to start again. Did you hear that reset requested by the psalmist in this morning’s text? “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” (Psalm 25:7) “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love.” (Psalm 25:6)
Recently I’ve found myself gravitating to words of wisdom that speak to learning from our regrets. Some of them may be familiar to you. Words like “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.” And from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better…when you know better, do better.” I find I’m drawn to talk of failing toward competence and upping my game. So redeem my regrets, God. Use them to help me improve myself and to “do better” on behalf of others, too.
It’s that growth mindset, right? I want to remain open and curious and teachable. I want to be the kind of learner who catches her mistakes and makes midcourse corrections as many times as necessary. I want to respond to God’s call to repentance not so much as a one-time ‘before and after’ but as an ‘ever after,’ a continual learning curve. “Show me your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me.” (Psalm 25:4-5)
There’s so much we can learn right here within our own church family and that’s been a strength of this congregation since long before I ever arrived. As you’ve explored the Scriptures together. As you’ve participated in thoughtful board meetings and in-depth Sunday School classes and spiritual retreats. It’s a model I was taught, too, and have tried my best to continue: the church as classroom, all of us lifelong learners of Scripture and its application. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed opportunities to play “Magnolia Presbyterian Seminary” and to teach and learn with you here.
But I’m also more and more convinced it’s time to take class outside.
Grateful as we are to have reopened our building, there’s only so much of God’s path available to us here. Our classrooms are only so big, this aisle is only so long and as much as we love our fellow students who are part of this congregation, we know we bring with us a limited range of perspectives. There’s a far bigger world out there in which God is eager to teach us and it seems to me we’re being invited out into the kinds of spaces where Jesus taught his first disciples. Hillsides and lakesides. Streets and marketplaces.
Again, no matter how long it’s been since we sat in a classroom, the back-to-school season can inspire any of us to learn something new. I find it exciting – and humbling – knowing I’ll never run out of new things to learn or new people to learn them from. And I’ve been dreaming about a whole range of new educational opportunities for us as a church too. Reading and viewing suggestions shared across generations. Tours of our neighborhood to notice things we haven’t noticed before. Conversations out in our community with people whose perspectives we haven’t thought to seek out in the past. Other kinds of field trips, too – to museums and cultural centers as well as to other worshiping communities – and reports back from MPC’ers of all ages not just on what we’ve learned but why it matters to us as people of faith and followers of Jesus. What has God been teaching your fellow worshipers? How might their learning inform your own? Granted, some of these plans may have to wait a bit while we get ourselves through more of this pandemic. But I’m confident there are ways we can all head back to school this year too.
“Show me your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me.” (Psalm 25:4-5)
“Show [us] your ways, O Lord; teach [us] your paths. Lead [us] in your truth, and teach [us].” (Psalm 25:4-5)
 From the song “Father, Let Your Kingdom Come” by The Porter’s Gate.
 Anne Lamott, Almost Everything, p. 118.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth… from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2) … “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) … “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.” (Psalm 90:15) …
Like other psalms we’ve read together this summer, Psalm 90 offers us some real gems: memorable lines like these to meditate on, each one offering a bit of wisdom to carry with us or a meaningful phrase to add to our prayers.
Like so many biblical texts, Psalm 90 read in different versions offers yet more gifts in its words. From the poetry of the King James: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) To the clarity of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message: “Make up for the bad times with some good times; we’ve seen enough evil to last a lifetime.” (Psalm 90:15) “Teach us to live wisely and well!” (Psalm 90:12)
But with so many lines to choose from and so much to be gleaned from the psalm as a whole, it was the final verse of this one that really drew me in this time: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)
I guess it makes sense for that line to draw my focus this Labor Day weekend when we’re thinking about work. “Prosper the work of our hands.” But it was actually the verb there that I kept returning to: “prosper the work of our hands.” I wonder if it’s because so many big things seem to be spinning out of control right now. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the enormity and seriousness of the problems facing our world. Or in worrying that nothing we’re doing is enough. I think that’s why this line of the psalmist’s prayer resonates with me. Lord, make it matter, what we’re able to do. Make our efforts count. “Prosper the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17)
Of course we know “the work of our hands” is simply a figure of speech, and that God can work through us in a multitude of ways, using any number of body parts. Listening ears. Observant eyes. Strong voices. Creative brains. Compassionate hearts. All that and more, it seems to me, is included in this ask of God: “prosper the work of our hands.” We want to do our best with these bodies we’ve been issued. We want to give it our all in the time we have. In Ecclesiastes we read: “Whatever you hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) Our second Scripture lesson urges us, whatever we do, to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God … through him.” (Colossians 3:17) And here in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days,” Lord. (Psalm 90:12 KJV) As I understand the gist of verse 17, we want to make those days count. “Prosper the work of our hands.”
I can see how the word “prosper” in the translation we’re using today might lead people to think material success is important. And that could be what the psalmist had in mind. Whatever his own work, or that of his immediate community (since the text refers to the work of “our” hands vs. “my” hands) he probably did want God to make that work productive and successful. But it’s worth noting the Hebrew root translated “prosper” here in the New Revised Standard Version can also be interpreted in other ways. Translations like “establish the work of our hands” appear to be equally fitting here, or “confirm” that work, or make it stand. In a world where so much is fleeting, make our efforts last, Lord. Establish them. Make them stand.
And if we read this text in conversation with the rest of Scripture, it becomes clear pretty quickly that there are far more important things than financial or material prosperity. Like generosity to the poor, hospitality to the stranger, compassion to the prisoner – we see these kinds of priorities emphasized throughout the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. In the gospels, conventional understandings of prosperity are turned entirely on their heads when Jesus speaks of the last becoming first and the first last, and again when he asks a rich man to sell all his possessions and give away the proceeds to the poor. (Mark 10:21) Hardly the stuff of upward mobility! In the epistles, too, we see different standards for a successful life than are necessarily obvious to us from the broader culture. Taking to heart that whole text we heard from Colossians today, how might our lives prosper with humility and patience? How might we thrive through forgiveness? Or measure a productive career in acts of kindness and love?
Whether the work of your hands is at a piano keyboard or a laptop keyboard or a drafting table. Whether your work is relatively solitary or involves a classroom full of students, a hospital full of patients, or a store full of customers. Whether your work results in a paycheck, or children or parents who know they are loved, or the satisfaction of helping a neighbor or a nonprofit cause dear to your heart. Whether your hands are covered in dirt from the garden or toner from the office printer or glitter from a child’s art project. Whether your hands are stiff from repetitive motion, or sore from heavy lifting, or cracked from scrubbing and sanitizing. Whether you’re young enough that you’re still imagining what you’ll be when you grow up, or you’re training or retraining for a chosen profession, or you’ve long ago retired… Whatever your hands find to do to make a difference in this world – for there is plenty each of us can do – let’s do it with all our might. (Ecclesiastes 9:10) And “whatever [we] do… [let’s] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God … through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
“Prosper the work of our hands,” Lord. “Prosper the work of our hands.” Establish it. Make it matter. Make it count.
At the same time, it’s probably worth mentioning another important teaching about work in Scripture. And that’s the importance of balance, and rhythm, and rest. We know it’s not healthy for us to work constantly and never step away. It can also leave us feeling a little adrift when we don’t have meaningful work of some kind to do. Granted, not every chapter of our lives allows for the ratio of work to rest we’d prefer. Life is complicated. The limitations of human bodies and the complexities of relationships, organizations, and even whole economies can interfere with the best laid plans. Wished-for projects and needed down time may not present themselves when we want them to, or we might simply have so many other people depending on us in certain seasons that it’s hard to step away. But surely a measure of balance is the goal.
Certainly, that’s what God has in mind for us. We began our service this morning with the divine command: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20:9-10) Because Jesus assured us “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2:27) it seems to me we can reset as often as we need to in our efforts to regain that balance, aiming to find meaningful work to do while at the same time maintaining healthy boundaries and prioritizing physical and mental rest.
As we come closer to restoring a bit of equilibrium for ourselves, we may also notice how many others can’t afford to alternate work with the rest they desperately need. The Sabbath commandment in Exodus makes clear everyone deserves that balance – not just those of us for whom overwork is sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice – but also those with very few choices or none at all. God commands us to be sure they get a Sabbath too. In Exodus the specific reference is to slaves getting a day off but surely, we can extrapolate to include those scrambling to hold down multiple minimum wage jobs to put food on the table, and anyone employed in a job we would do most anything to avoid. It seems to me complete obedience to God’s Sabbath commandment asks the workaholics among us to take breaks, yes, but also asks people of privilege like us to do a bit of work – to vote and to advocate and to share what we are fortunate enough to have – so that all God’s children get the benefit of Sabbath rest.
“Prosper the work of our hands,” Lord. All of our hands. Help everyone find that balance of work and rest, and bring us to the end of each day feeling we’ve done something that matters. An act of service. An act of kindness. Words spoken or tasks accomplished that meet a need.
In a world that frightens us sometimes with the severity and scope of its problems, our text from Colossians reminds us: the most ordinary, everyday tasks can matter. When we act with humility and compassion. When we lean into patience and forgiveness. When we offer love. “Whatever you do – in word or deed - do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God … through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
And back to our Psalm? We’ve got a limited number of years at our disposal. “Teach us to number our days” and, Lord, make them matter. “Prosper the work of our hands.” Prosper it. The work of tiring days and uncomfortable conversations and thankless tasks, along with work that brings us great joy. The schoolwork and the paid work and the family chores and caregiving. Our efforts on behalf of those who are hungry, those who are hurting or lonely, those who are fearful and far from home. Along with every task undertaken and every challenge faced in the cause of justice. God, prosper our work. Help us make a difference. Make it count.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth… from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2) … “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) And “prosper the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17) Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
A month or so ago we did an exercise together where we read a different psalm several times through and noticed the phrases that caught our attention. I suggested writing your phrases down or repeating them often enough that they’d begin to travel around with you, those pocket-sized words from the Lord, and you may have heard some additional candidates this morning for that spiritual practice. Among my own favorite images in Psalm 104 are the phrase about God being “wrapped in light as with a garment,” (v. 2), the line about God creating a great sea creature, Leviathan, to “sport” or play in the water (v. 26), and this reminder that the songs we sing together in worship are at their best when they play on repeat in our hearts and on our tongues between Sundays: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.” (v. 33)
But the phrase that’s stuck with me above all others this week is one that’s so simple, and so convicting, all at once: “the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24) “The earth is full of your creatures.” From the first page of Genesis through the entirety of Scripture we’ve been taught that God made all of it: “the trees of the Lord” (Psalm 104:16) and the clouds that are God’s chariot (Psalm 104:3); the wild goats (Psalm 104:18), the young lions (Psalm 104:21), and those mysterious “coneys” in verse 18 of today’s psalm (a word I had to look up; I found references to everything from rabbits to badgers in translations of a rare Hebrew word, shephanim). Not to mention the “creeping things innumerable” in the seas which add to the manifold works of God. (Psalm 104:24-25)
God as artist and owner. “The earth is full of your creatures,” Lord. (v. 24) or as we read in another psalm, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1) Surely all of this should teach us a measure of humility. As we heard God asking Job earlier this summer: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow” (Job 38:22) or “prescribed bounds” for the seas? (Job 38:10) “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?” (Job 39:26) “Can you send forth lightning” (Job 38:35) or “give the horse its might?” (Job 39:19)
It’s one of the most basic doctrines of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faith traditions. Certainly, those of us who’ve spent a lifetime in the Church have heard it since we were little ones, and I bet we sing about it at least a few times every Sunday. It’s at the core of our identity as people of faith to know ourselves – and everyone, and everything – to be made, owned, and sustained by God. Science can teach us an extraordinary amount about the what’s and how’s of the world around us, but we rely on Scripture to introduce us to the Who, the One stands behind it all. Indeed, “the earth is full of your creatures,” O Lord. We have learned and we believe and proclaim it to be true.
But we don’t always act like it’s true, do we?
We act like the earth belongs to us, its resources entirely ours to use or misuse or use up. How else could I justify the many things I end up doing over the course of a week that burn fossil fuels and waste water and add garbage to the landfill?
And with a handful of exceptions (like those dogs of a thousand dog parks I mentioned at children’s time), we often act like the non-human creatures who share this planet with us are mere extras – props, objects, property, entirely dispensable and disposable. How else could we justify the cruelties of factory farming or polluting the oceans with plastic and the ground with toxic chemicals? How else could we justify selfish human celebrations that end up burning down millions of acres of West Coast animal habitats (in addition to endangering human life), or carbon emissions that have global warming killing off sea creatures by the billions? It seems to me sins like these require us to forget “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24:1)
Too often, even our fellow human creatures have been treated as dispensable, disposed of like so many commodities or cast-offs, destroyed as nuisances and nemeses. How else could anyone justify enslavement or concentration camps? How else could our nation persistently, over centuries, uphold racist laws and pardon acts of brutality that convey Black lives don’t matter? Or design internment camps and implement exclusion acts that convey Asian lives don’t matter? Or create immigration policies and condone racist and Islamophobic rhetoric that conveys Brown lives don’t matter? How else could we accustom ourselves to sexual violence and domestic violence and gun violence being as sickeningly common as they are? Even the current political polarization in our country tempts us to demonize and dehumanize whole categories of people who disagree with us. Sins like these, too, stem from forgetting “the earth is full of [God’s] creatures,” (Psalm 104:24), every single person made equally in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27)
“The earth is full of your creatures,” O Lord.
“The earth is full of your creatures.”
The cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10), the polar bears on a thousand ice caps, the 137 species that go extinct every day in God’s rainforests.
“The earth is full of your creatures.” The people here in this room and on our Zoom call today along with the residents of a thousand tent cities, the inmates in a thousand prisons, Native children looking back at us from a thousand haunting Indian boarding school photographs. The work of God’s hands, God’s masterpieces and God’s beloved children, each one. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi long ago suggested a procession of angels walks in front of every human being, shouting “Make way for the image of God! Make way for the image of God!”
In another creation text, Psalm 33, we read: “The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind. From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth … and observes all their deeds.” In other words, the artist and owner of it all sees what’s happening to the world God made. Sees what we’re doing to one another. See what I mean about a short biblical phrase being so simple, and so convicting, all at once? “The earth is full of your creatures,” Lord. “The earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24)
It’s a lot, I know. And I’m sorry if this felt like a sneak attack today. Here we were reading a beautiful, uplifting psalm of creation and suddenly we’re talking about some of our world’s biggest problems. It’s where the text led me (at the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I hope), and it’s my job to tell you where I feel the Spirit and the text leading me each week as best I can. Still… time for a deep breath, I think. Time to remember our limits. And that it isn’t all up to us. And that anything we could ever do would only be with God’s help.
To that end, let’s return to the beginning of Psalm 104 for a moment to help us remember who’s in charge: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 104:1-3)
It's never a bad time to focus on the majesty of God’s creation, but I hope these summer months, especially, have offered you some opportunities to really notice and delight in it. The wildflowers in a thousand meadows, the mountains from a thousand viewpoints, the sunlight catching the water from a thousand angles. As we notice, and give thanks, I hope we’ll feel newly motivated to do everything in our power to preserve this magnificent earth and protect its divinely created plant and animal life.
And, of course, it’s never a bad time to focus on the needs of God’s human creatures – “the time is always right to do what is right,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said – but the last few weeks have surely rekindled our desire to do what is right. Priceless masterpieces created by God, God’s precious children – those are the faces on a thousand airplanes taking off from Afghanistan, and the faces of those left behind. Those are the people in a thousand homes, and far more, reduced to rubble around the nation of Haiti. Can you hear the angels walking in front of each one? “Make way for the image of God!”
As we recommit ourselves to doing what we can, I’m grateful there are other foundational principles we repeat together regularly around here too. Truths like: our “help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:2) Thank God we don’t have to do it on our own. Truths like: God’s mercies are “new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) Thank God we get to begin again – over and over and over again – when we know we’ve gotten it wrong.
Every single day the God who made us offers us a fresh start, full of new chances to remember that the earth is full of God’s creatures. (Psalm 104:24) From “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10) to beautiful humans, created in God’s image in a thousand different ways – hurting in a thousand different ways, yes – but also gifted by God with the ability to care for one another in a thousand different ways.
“The earth is full of [God’s] creatures.” (Psalm 104:24) Full! Far too many for us to engage with directly, but that also means plenty to choose from. Let’s be sure to choose one. One of God’s beautiful, beloved creatures, or one cause on behalf of God’s creatures, to which we can offer our heart and our hands, our financial resources, our energy, our skills.
“The earth is full of [God’s] creatures.”
Every day we’re given another chance to use the gifts God’s given us to help care for our fellow residents of this planet.
“The earth is full of [God’s] creatures.”
Every day, new opportunities to remember that foundational truth, to act like we believe it, to get it right. Thanks be to God.
 In this morning’s children’s time, I used as my jumping off point Psalm 50:10 and the phrase “the cattle on a thousand hills” to talk about all of the animals on earth belonging to God (e.g. the squirrels in a thousand trees, the hummingbirds on a thousand flowers, the bears in a thousand forests…) and our responsibility to care for our fellow creatures as an act of devotion to God.
 From Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:4 (a rabbinic commentary on the book of Deuteronomy)
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” That opening line of Psalm 122 seemed especially fitting for our call to worship today as we gathered in our sanctuary again after such a long time away. I’ve heard our at-home worshipers are grateful, too, for new camera angles that allow you to see more of this space that means so much to you. In early March of last year, we couldn’t have imagined as many as two Sundays in a row when this building would have remained empty. Yet here we are, coming back together for the first time after nearly a year and a half apart. I don’t know how you felt when you heard the news a few weeks ago that Session had decided to resume in person worship today. But “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Amen?
Psalm 27, which Jeff just read for us, contains a similar verse: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)
There’s a back story to each of these psalms, of course. Psalm 122 is identified as a song of ascent which means it was likely sung on pilgrimages to the holy city and to its temple. So “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1) is immediately followed by “our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:2) Meanwhile Psalm 27 seems to be the song of a particular individual in distress who’s in the temple praying for deliverance. So that reference to the house of the Lord is sandwiched between verses like these: “when evildoers assail me … they shall stumble and fall” (Psalm 27:2) and “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!” (Psalm 27:7)
Of course, the psalms wouldn’t have become a prayer book for Jews and Christians alike over the centuries if they didn’t resonate well beyond their original contexts. And as you may recall, this summer we’ve stepped away from historical readings a bit and taken a different approach. We’ve been trying out an ancient spiritual practice called lectio divina. Sacred reading. Reading through a biblical text several times and simply noticing what we notice. Watching where our eye lingers. Paying attention to where we are stopped or summoned by God’s Spirit as we read. As I prepared for us to return to our sanctuary today and had Psalm 27 before me, the phrase that stood out to me was: “to live in the house of the Lord.”
We often use the word sanctuary to refer to the house of the Lord and a space like this one. Sanctuary conveys not only a holy space but a place of refuge, of safety and comfort, and this church building might well be those things for you. It’s not for nothing we feel a sense of relief today to have finally reopened our doors today. I remember saying early on during the pandemic we should pull out our Easter Alleluia wands as soon as we got back here to celebrate this momentous occasion. For it ismomentous. It’s cause for great celebration. “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4) We’ve been missing this building, this sanctuary, these people. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1)
At the same time, a few other texts kept coming to mind this week, asking to be brought into conversation with today’s psalms. The first comes from King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple in Jerusalem, the very house of the Lord of which the psalmists spoke. Here’s what Solomon has to say: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27) We find the same sentiment in the opening verses of Isaiah 66: “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool;what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? All these things my hand has made.” (Isaiah 66:1-2) And just last week I was talking with the children about Psalm 139 with its memorable lines about God’s nearness in all places: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10) So, when we hear a phrase like “the house of the Lord” we might well picture a sanctuary like this one, but we know we’re invited to pan back and see the bigger picture, too. The whole earth as God’s footstool. A God heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain much less this or any other physical building.
We’ve missed this holy space, because here in this room we’ve gathered with our sisters and brothers in Christ over the years, and we may feel God’s presence here in a particularly meaningful way. But the last 18 months have offered powerful reminders that God doesn’t reside only or even primarily here. And neither does the body of Christ. In the span of a few short weeks in early 2020, almost the entire global Church pivoted completely to remote forms of worship. Sanctuary doors were locked, church buildings left eerily empty, and sure, there were some hiccups as we all adjusted to new forms of technology. But the Holy Spirit – a big fan of movement and disruption and transformation – has clearly been at work in the Church, bringing surprising gifts and opportunities out of this whole unsettling season. God’s also used this pandemic to draw our attention to deep and longstanding injustices, pushing us to really look, and see them, and respond, rather than staying tucked away inside these walls where our own safety makes it all too easy not to notice or to engage.
It seems to me the challenge before us as we reopen this space is to appreciate it, certainly, but not to allow ourselves to get overly comfortable here. Can we celebrate having this sanctuary available to us again without forgetting what we learned outside these walls? Or even what’s happening right now outside these walls?
Safe in our own little bubbles both here and at home, we find ourselves celebrating and giving thanks today. But we’re too familiar with this week’s top news stories to make the mistake of thinking all is well in God’s world. Not as we watch heartbreaking situations unfold both in Haiti and in Afghanistan on top of wildfires and flooding and staggering COVID numbers both here in the US and worldwide.
There’s so much more to the story of God’s children this week than our own congregation being allowed to return to our lovely church home. I find I simultaneously want to wave my Alleluia wand today for our MPC family, and to weep loud and long for our human family and what so many other children of God are enduring right now. Tears of relief mingling with tears of lament. For we know we’re the fortunate ones. We who have made it this far through COVID, and who still have enough to live on, and whose homes remain intact. We who are not fleeing for our lives, or fighting for our next meal, or desperately seeking the safety of our children. We who are privileged. Those of us who are white. What does it mean for us to find sanctuary here “in the house of the Lord” when others don’t have that luxury right now?
But of course, this building, much as we may treasure it, was only ever a rest stop along our way. A place to touch down together and gird ourselves up for the next leg of our journey. A place to offer praise to the God of all creation, to lift up prayers for our fellow creatures, and to encourage one another to use our privilege to make a meaningful difference in God’s world.
We can enjoy being back, as long as we promise one another we won’t get stuck here. Because it seems to me most of the action is happening outside these walls. Where God’s Spirit continues to move and breathe and blow, bringing both disruption and transformation. Where the God of creation has charged us with caring for that creation. Where the God of justice calls us to fight for justice for all God’s children. It’s not a question of whether God is here or there. We sing it every week: God is here, there, and everywhere. And it’s not a question of us and them. When it comes to our fellow children of God, we have to know: there is only us - all of us.
So if we’re going to “live in the house of the Lord” for whom the whole earth is his footstool, we’ll need to settle into our pews a little less and get out a whole lot more. The Rev. Tali Hairston, one of our presbytery staff members, reminds us Jesus was most often out on the road. He taught and healed and ministered not in a sanctuary somewhere but out in the community, along the way. So we’ll need to be people on the move too. We may even need to become comfortable with discomfort if that’s what’s required to engage more deeply with the world around us.
Still - “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1) “One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” (Psalm 27:4)
Can we celebrate being back “in the house of the Lord” today? Absolutely. As long as we also remember we never really left. For the Lord’s house is bigger than this building, bigger than this safe little corner of our city. And as God’s people we’re called to live bigger too.
Let’s enjoy reconnecting with one another and with this holy space today. And then let’s get back out there “to live in the [great big] house of the Lord!” Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last week we practiced reading through a biblical psalm a few times and simply noticing what we noticed, asking: Were there specific words or phrases that caught our eye? Where might God’s Spirit be speaking to us in those words? Could we take them into the week with us, these little travel-sized truths and pocket-sized promises from God? Those of you who shared specific phrases that caught your attention, either in the chat during worship or in the email string afterward, demonstrated beautifully that God can speak to us differently through a single text. In the case of Psalm 65, one of you was stopped and summoned by the first half of verse 5 - “by awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance” and another by the second half of that same verse: “you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” One of you was struck in this dry summer season by the whole section about the gift of rain in verses 9 & 10, from “you visit the earth and water it” through talk of “softening it with showers and blessing its growth.” A couple of us stumbled over the line in verse 7 about God “[silencing] the tumult of the peoples,” something we certainly long for but that’s difficult to see right now in our chaotic world. A few of us paused to marvel at the majesty of creation with that beautiful phrase from verse 8: “the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”
I hope it was a helpful exercise. It’s certainly one you can repeat at any time. Simply read or listen to a biblical text several times through. Notice what catches your eye or your ear. Ask whether there is a gift to be received there, or an invitation to which you’re being called to respond.
Turning now to this morning’s Scripture lesson, I’ve noticed over time that no matter what else catches my attention, each time I read Psalm 1 I’m inevitably drawn to the phrase “planted by streams of water.” And really to that whole lush scene in the center of the psalm with its talk of trees yielding fruit and leaves that don’t wither. Healthy, solidly rooted, well-watered trees standing in stark contrast to the lightweight chaff so easily blown away. So today I thought we’d stick with this one visually rich image and consider it from a few different angles.
Let me first point out, though, since we focused on biblical wisdom literature earlier this summer, that Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm. Both in style and in content, it shares several features with the book of Proverbs. In contrasting the behaviors of the righteous and the wicked. In asserting that righteousness will inevitably be rewarded, and wickedness punished. In drawing on the natural world as a source of wisdom with those planted trees and that insubstantial chaff serving as object lessons. In expressing these observations with paired statements in back-to-back lines: “for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish.” (Psalm 1:6) Even in that language of two different ways or paths, Psalm 1 sounds very much like Proverbs. And if we question whether the righteous can really count on prospering while the wicked are punished, we probably had those same concerns in Proverbs, too, and are grateful for the balance offered by a wisdom book like Job with its candid talk about the reality of innocent suffering. In any event, Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm.
It’s very much in keeping with the wisdom tradition to then apply what we learn from Psalm 1 to our individual lives. And it’s not too difficult to connect personally with this metaphor of well-watered trees, is it? To reflect on the kinds of dynamics that can leave any one of us feeling parched and dry… To consider our best sources of refreshment and health and abundant life… What keeps us hydrated (figuratively speaking)? Psalm 1 reminds us there’s no match for immersing ourselves in God’s word to help us take root, stay well-watered, and thrive. It can be as simple as the kind of reflective Bible reading we did together last week. You may find that things like regular Sabbath rest and time in God’s creation and frequent opportunities for prayer and for service to others keep you rooted in God’s living water as well.
“Trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3) is a rich metaphor and there’s plenty to be gained from exploring it like this with a view toward our inner lives. But we talked last time about noticing what we notice as we read through a biblical text, and I found my reflections on this phrase moving in other directions this week too.
In a summer like this one when the ground all around us longs for rain, when heat and drought and wildfires have been sweeping across the western part of our country with devastating effects, physical streams of water sound especially welcome, don’t they? What’s more, we’ve learned the heat and the fires have been made worse by humanity’s abuse of God’s good creation. Could Psalm 1 have a word for us here too? What does wisdom and foolishness look like, what does righteousness and wickedness look like, when it comes to the stewardship of the earth and its resources? Not to mention, what does it say about our concern for fellow humans made in God’s image that the worst effects can often hit communities already suffering the most?
For instance, speaking of longing for the hydrating and cooling powers of water, an unprecedented heat dome arrives, and we who are privileged to do so stock up on cold beverages and ice, turn on multiple fans, flee to an air-conditioned restaurant or movie theatre or to the basements of our homes, but for those without the resources we have, what a dangerous and even deadly week that turned out to be earlier this summer. In hindsight I regret that I was far more focused at the time on getting through it myself – heat wimp that I am even at temperatures below 100 – than I was on trying to be of service to others who were suffering far more than I. I confess I primarily turned inward rather than outward.
Which brings me back to Psalm 1, and something about that well-watered tree I’ve neglected to highlight so far: the fruit on its branches. Because the tree is watered, it thrives, yes, and it is productive. It bears fruit. I wonder if the fruit mentioned here in verse 3 can function as a reminder that even being planted by streams of water can’t simply be about our own inner peace. A healthy spiritual life is about more than me and God in my own private bubble. A life of faith is a life in community, a life of service.
I think, too, about other Scriptural references to streams of water. In the words of the prophet Amos, for instance, we’re called to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) God wants his whole creation to get wet and we’re not talking about a few stingy drops. In Eugene Peterson’s version of this same verse, God says “I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it.”
In a way I suppose God’s call to justice and righteousness maybe does connect back to the importance of being planted personally near God’s life-giving water. Simply because the arc of the universe bends so slowly toward justice, if we’re not deeply rooted and well-watered, our leaves might wither a bit along the way if we’re fighting hard against injustice, or perhaps we’ll risk blowing like chaff from one awful news story, one heartbreaking issue, one global problem to the next without knowing where to land and engage.
How do we choose life and grow into healthy, fruit bearing trees? How do we take our place in what Psalm 1 calls “the congregation of the righteous” (verse 5), prioritizing obedience to the God of justice?
Psalm 1 teaches that one way we do so is by finding our delight in the law of the Lord or the word of God. So let’s be sure to make room for that delight. Meditating on God’s word can include hearing, memorizing, singing the words of Scripture. You can of course read long chapters of biblical text every day if that brings you life, or you could start by picking a short phrase or two to carry around with you as we discussed last week. Whatever you choose to do, do it often enough that the word of God can work its way deep into your heart. The promises of God’s presence you’ll find there. The messages of grace and hope. The words of prophetic challenge too.
May we all find those streams of life-giving water.
May we find ourselves planted by streams of water.
May we be trees planted by streams of water, yielding fruit.