Transcribed from the sermon preached August 7, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Hebrews 11:1-8
I’m afraid to say that as I have gotten older I have gained an appreciation for infrastructure and tradition. My personality has an ingrained element of rebel and prophet, solidified by a postmodern study of history and an experience of life in Guatemala. Early on I had a knee jerk reaction to the time, effort and money that went into maintaining buildings, fancy communion sets and cushy church retreats. I remember as an intern sitting in on a Session meeting where elders discussed what kind of communion sets to buy. The decision was to buy a very nice and expensive silver set. I remember thinking the price was equal to two years wages for the average Guatemalan worker. After the ’89 earthquake, the great stone buildings of San Francisco Theological Seminary were closed as unsafe. By the early nineties they were discussing a nine million dollar retrofit. I thought, nine million dollars! How much great mission work could be done with that? But the buildings were and are very magnificent and beautiful. While we were in Palestine, Diana purchased a very beautiful communion set from a Palestinian glass blower and donated it to St. John’s. And we know that nothing promotes peace and prosperity more than a well-paying job.
It takes jobs to build and fix a building and make communion sets. That is a point the conservatives have right. After helping us construct purpose and meaning, a living wage is the most effective and important service a society can provide to individuals and families. In this sense, rich people use capital to employ people. Without people with extra income we wouldn’t have dog walkers or groomers or veterinarians, or gardeners or house cleaners, few artists, ministers or professors, few museums or churches. Isaiah was a part of the institution. He was a temple priest. But when society and religion substituted fanciness for piety and justice, he snapped. Too often when we rely on trickle-down economics, all that trickles down on the poor is pollution and violence.
There is an eternal danger that our self-worth means the devaluation of others, the justification of exploitation, a resistance to the communal good. How benevolent we are for our selfishness. Aren’t we good! Don’t we deserve more! Our own pleasure and preservation will always be a popular religion.
Postmodern spirituality has been rightly critical of old institutions like the Church, self-preserving, money seeking, dogmatic, bureaucratic, institutions that too often mirror and preserve the worst of patriarchal, white, capitalist culture. So all sorts of new-age spiritualities promote their own brand of self-preservation and self-care. Self-love and self-care spirituality fit perfectly into individualistic capitalist culture, which has taken advantage and fostered individual spiritualism into a multi-billion dollar business. The yoga studio I frequent recently changed owners, raised their prices 75% and stuck a store in the lobby. You can now buy essential oils, incense, yoga and self-care books, expensive yoga pants and cool, sexy hippie blouses, little Buddhas and Goddesses, mood-calming, organic, anti-oxidant herbal teas, all for your own personal well-being … and the profit of the yoga studio.
St. John’s admittedly is an institution, and we have a big building. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to keep it going. We only house non-profit organizations, but between the permanent groups, childcare, Monteverde preschool, Maybeck High School, and St. John’s, there are over 70 people employed. Thousands and thousands of kids have been educated here, given tuition assistance, learned music, earned merit badges, and we just finished with the 22nd year of Camp Elmwood – where kids of every class, race and nationality become friends, learn to lead, have fun and learn values that make individuals and communities strong, sustainable and peaceful. Last week Nelly and Mark Coplan took our newly arrived niece with them over to People’s Park to feed 70 homeless people. This was part of Food, not Bombs which cooks vegetarian meals in our kitchen twice a week for that purpose. We have five recovery groups that meet here. Synagogues, youth orchestras, the Haiti Action Committee, the School of the America’s Watch, the Ecumenical Peace Institute and East Bay Sanctuary Covenant hold their big events here. Last month East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, which got its start in this building, celebrated their 3000th asylum case won – and a case very often represents a family – meaning some ten thousand lives have been saved and touched. And I am very pleased to report, that after months of work by the Grounds and Facilities Commission, especially Don Rising, a solar power contract has been accepted and will be sent to the Session for approval next week.
And of course, at the very center of who we are is our worship of the God of life and love, here in this sanctuary. If the city came and told us we had to close until we retrofitted, it would be hard to let this beautiful sanctuary go. By the way, if there is an earthquake, I’m sure my self-caring nature would have me running out this exit.
Inward self-reservation, pride, cultural presumption will always carry its own gravity, drawing time, energy, focus and money inward. In a sense everyone comes to church, at least initially, because we have an internal spiritual need. With work comes the need for Sabbath; loving our neighbor as our self presumes we develop enough of a self, enough self-love to love another as ourselves. The commandment is not hate yourself. Humility and low self-esteem are not the same thing. We seek to be personally fed and renewed by God. But feeding ourselves and our things will almost always tempt us toward myopia and selfishness. Many of our personal problems wouldn’t seem so big if we didn’t spend so much time focusing on them, on ourselves. If the Gospel of Jesus is correct, we are personally fed and renewed by expanding our point of view beyond our own personal profit.
I don’t think I have ever finished a yoga class and thought, “that was a bad idea; that was a waste of my time.” There is value in honoring our body, ourselves right now, in this moment. I like yoga; I recommend it, just not on Sunday morning. I have been involved in church worship services, or meetings or events in church where I thought, “that wasn’t fun and might have been more work than it was worth.” Yet Church is about love, and love is about community, and community is about being together and most of us are often difficult.
We take on tasks that are more complex than our feeble minds can handle, work that is bigger than we can do by ourselves. We address problems that started long before we were born, and take on goals that will not be accomplished in our lifetime. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of thing not seen.
The Word of God tells us that we are loved now, that our body, mind and soul matter to God here and now, and ought to matter to us too. As we extend that message to all God’s children and all life, it redefines the value of others beyond how they contribute to our profit and our personal pursuit of happiness. It means that our little personal rituals and worship, our traditions, our fancy communion dishes, our mood calming anti-oxidant herbal teas, our candles, crosses and buildings, if they don’t sustain and strengthen us for the collective work of justice and peace, if they don’t encourage and enable us to look out beyond our own myopic point of view, they don’t amount to a hill of beans to God.
Isaiah begins his book and God says, “Come now, let us argue this out.” Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Yesterday a bunch of us held worship at the prison. The few dozen of us stood before a great concrete wall, before a great nation which too often decides that fleeing from starvation, murder and rape is against the law. And we meet to say that it is not against God’s law. We meet to proclaim that all God’s children are precious and beautiful. We met to say that when people who feel as strangers and foreigners reach out in faith, in search for a safe place, God hears their cries and brings them home.
It is one of the great paradoxes of faith, that as we extend our point of view beyond our own profit, beyond our own self care, we somehow grow, our fears decrease, our courage increases. Our soul is fed as we feed, as we face our momentary fears we find eternal courage, as we risk turning off the path to our own personal pleasure to accomplish love, we find our joy complete. As we share our bread we find ourselves full, as we face death together, we find new life.