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.