Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
First of all, hello MPC congregation! It’s strange to be talking to you this way instead of live at church. I miss seeing each of you. I miss our being all together on Sunday mornings. And I certainly hope we’ll be able to resume our normal worship schedule before very long.
But like so many other congregations around our area, we need to get creative about other ways to worship right now. So today I’m offering our Scripture readings and sermon in the form of an audio recording, and if the public health situation continues to require it, I can do this again. Our wonderful Music Director Rob Jones also wants to contribute to our worship life while we’re apart, so we expect to be providing you with even more resources in the days ahead.
For today, our first Scripture reading comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua, chapter 1 verse 9: "I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Our second reading is selected verses from Psalm 27:
"The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I 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.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock…
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me…
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!"
Please pray with me: Thank you, God, for the gift of your Holy Word in the pages of Scripture. And thank you that we can find ways like this to connect as a church community even when we are apart. Help each person listening right now to feel your presence with them, and help each one to hear the message you most want them to hear. Amen.
The sermon focus I’d originally planned for Lent this year, on spiritual practices, isn’t a bad one to be continuing right now. You may be looking for ways to strengthen your faith and deepen your personal practices of speaking and listening to God in this odd and unsettling time. So I’ll continue providing invitations to do so over the next few weeks whether we are together or apart.
In fact, there are spiritual practices that lend themselves particularly well to a strange time like this.
The first one that comes to mind is the practice of Detachment. In her handbook on spiritual disciplines, Adele Calhoun defines Detachment as nurturing the spirit of trust that is attached to God alone. Detachment asks us to examine our relationships, our goals and agenda, our views of success, money, power, things, productivity, and image – and to let go of anything standing in the way of our attachment to and trust in God alone. So on one level this can be about any form of letting go that eliminates clutter and distraction. We might, for instance, let go of things in an overstuffed closet and give them to someone in need. Or we might let a few events go from our busy calendars to build in more time for peace and quiet and prayer.
Incidentally, if you’re finding it hasn’t been all bad to have some things fall off your calendar over the last couple weeks, that it has actually been a little healthier for you not to be running around all the time, perhaps you’re hearing an invitation from God to think carefully before adding those things back in again. When the public health scare is behind us, and we return to life as usual, might God be inviting you to a ‘new normal’ that doesn’t include quite so much packed into every day?
And Detachment is about so much more than closets and to do lists, too. It’s about letting go of outcomes and trusting God’s provision. It’s about letting go of plans and trusting God’s timing. Like me, I imagine you are finding invitations all over the place right now to practice those kinds of Detachment. Every plan requires a contingency plan. Everything on our calendars seems to have an asterisk beside it – will it happen, or won’t it? This virus is seriously messing with our sense of control! But how much of that control was an illusion in the first place? Human existence comes with all kinds of uncertainty. Any day of our lives - including long before the coronavirus ever showed its face – any given day could always bring with it huge surprises, whether bad or good. This is why our Muslim friends add the phrase “Insha Allah,” if God so wills, when they make plans. I’ve heard some of you say much the same thing. “Will I see you at coffee on Tuesday?” “God willing.”
So perhaps part of our invitation in this unusual season is to loosen our grip on how we thought things were supposed to unfold, and to practice greater openness to whatever may come. In his paraphrase of Scripture, The Message, Eugene Peterson rewords Mark 8:34 this way: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am.”
Does it require a greater level of trust in God to hold onto plans and outcomes lightly rather than tightly? Sure. Does your pastor need as much practice at this as anyone? You’d better believe it! I’m a planner and goal-setter and I live by my to do lists, so my learning curve on this has been a little bumpy, I’m not gonna lie. But might the spiritual practice of Detachment offer us lessons this month that can serve us well in future situations? No doubt.
The other spiritual practice I want to mention today is one that doesn’t necessarily appear in the usual lists, and that is the practice of Courage. It’s tempting to think of Courage as an innate quality that some people have and some people don’t. But I’ve come to believe that everyone is capable of great Courage. Because it isn’t the absence of fear. It’s a decision to do what needs to be done even when we’re fearful. The way I see it, this makes Courage a practice we can cultivate rather than an attribute we do or do not possess.
Some of you may be familiar with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis? It’s the story of a grand and sometimes terrifying quest, with a girl named Lucy as one of the main characters. Aslan, a great lion, is a Christ figure, as he is in all of the Narnia stories, and Lucy and the others are on a ship heading into dark, unknown waters. Everyone is scared, and they’re getting worried that Aslan has led them in the wrong direction. At one point in the midst of some turmoil, Lucy whispers, “Aslan… if ever you loved us, send help now.” After she whispers this, Lewis writes: “The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little … better.” Then Lucy hears a gentle whisper in reply: “Courage, dear heart.” And even though she cannot see him in that moment, she knows in her heart that Aslan is near.
There’s no question life can feel pretty scary at times. We may wonder where God is, as our nation, our world, is battered by one storm after another – for there have been plenty of storms this year, of both the physical and metaphorical variety. But God is “very near to the broken-hearted. He is [but] a breath, [a whisper] away, and he has not abandoned us.” Even in times of great confusion, even when the storms of life cause us fear or pain, we can be sure there’s a gentle whisper from Aslan, from Christ, somewhere in the background. “Courage, dear heart.”
I’m not sure why God gives his children quite so many opportunities to flex their Courage muscles. But there’s no question Courage is called for in times like ours. Courage in the form of reaching across racial, cultural, religious, and political divisions, and treating one another with compassion and respect. Courage not to be dragged under by the enormity of the world’s problems, but instead to notice around us the good we might accomplish, and to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing it. Courage to wake up each morning and enter each day looking for things to be grateful for. Courage to stand up and speak out and make our lives count.
And here in Seattle, in March 2020? Courage not to panic, but just keep on washing our hands. Courage to retain a sense of normalcy wherever we can. Courage to remain connected even when we’re at a physical distance from one another for a little while. Courage to find creative ways to help others rather than curling up into a fetal position and hiding under the covers.
Friends, all we’re called to do as our region weathers the coronavirus is to keep on keeping on. To be the same followers of Jesus we’ve always been called to be. To be those same people, in spite of it all. Compassionate. Generous. Loving. Faithful. Courageous.
The public health situation may not immediately resolve itself, and it may be harder on some days than others to see God’s hand at work. It’s entirely appropriate for us to lift our concerns, our fears, even our laments to God in prayer. (The reason God’s angels are always saying “fear not” in Scripture, after all, is because it’s in our nature to find some situations frightening and overwhelming.)
But like Lucy on the Dawn Treader, I pray you’ll hear a gentle whisper in reply. “Courage, dear hearts. I’m right here with you. You are not alone.”
Let’s pray together:
Gracious, loving God, we know you hold the whole world in your hands. You hold us too. Help us with the spiritual practice of Detachment, letting go of plans and outcomes, productivity and control, and trusting in you more fully each day. Grant us Courage too, Lord - as individuals, as a church community, as a neighborhood and a city and a region. Help us always to remember that you are as close to us as our very breath. As we breathe in your Holy Spirit, give us the wisdom, the strength, the peace, the resolve, the resilience we need for the days ahead. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us
 From a blog called “Words Are Avenues” by Tasha Brooke Cardwell, entry dated December 21, 2014.