“Have I Labored in Vain?”


Transcribed from the sermon preached January 15, 2017

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7, John 2:13-25

 This Morning in Isaiah we read from the portion scholars call second Isaiah, the second edition written as the Israelites are in Exile. From the way it reads, we are not sure if Isaiah is speaking or Israel the nation is speaking: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”

Perhaps there are some of us today who are feeling like our efforts are going down the drain, as if we have worked for justice and inclusivity, for peace and equality, for love and grace, and for what, so we could go backwards, for nothing and vanity.

We feel shocked and betrayed, frightened and unsure of what the future will hold. What qualifies as journalism and truth seems to have completely unraveled. What we assumed were clear grounds for disqualification for public office are no longer clear. People are appointed to do a job who don’t like that the job is done. The working class has endorsed those who are most willing and able to exploit them. Much of the Church has sold its soul to those whose strongest attribute is greed. Friends who have come here seeking safety are once again afraid. We have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. streets all over the nation, we have a civil right amendment and a voting rights law and we thought we were far along toward a people who honored and respected people of all colors and genders, and now it all seems like nothing and vanity.

I find it interesting that Isaiah uses the word vanity, that he confesses he is vain. Perhaps we are guilty too of thinking we are so powerful that we can erase the sins of history, the abuse of power in collective life, the self-interest in the struggle to survive. We think we are so good that our reason and words will bring in world peace. Perhaps there is vanity in the pleasure we take in helping others, or thinking that we are helping others. Certainly this is part of the reason that Black Live Matter activists have asked white folks to follow rather than lead, to listen rather than speak. De Mandeville, quoted by Niebuhr writes, “The humblest man alive must confess that the reward of a virtuous action, which is the satisfaction that ensues upon it, consists in a certain pleasure he procures to himself by the contemplation of his own worth…” (Reinhold Niebuhr Moral Man and Immoral Society. P.55) The pride of some of us is damaged because our attempted virtuous actions and policy have been rejected, “How dare the working class not appreciate our selfless actions on their behalf?”

I have to admit that it is one of the tensions of my job as pastor of St John’s to sell and promote the virtues of this church, to show and tell about the good works and favors we do for others and each other, so that we feel good about who we are and others will want to join us in our endeavor. ?” This is a great church and we do fabulous things. Really, I mean it. We are the best and we are going to do even greater things. God loves us here. Really, we’re fabulous.

Certainly there is an element of personal pride in it for me, but also a desire to survive and thrive as a congregation. It is one of the great and well-known ironies of the Church, that we ask people with money to give us money so that we can spread the message that our priority should not be accumulation of personal wealth. We have a great building which requires support and protection, and that means there are times when we will find ourselves in conflict with those whose actions might be detrimental to the facility or us. And sometimes, in our effort and responsibility to support and protect our building, we have to choose one person or group over another. For instance the one hand, twice a week food is prepared in our kitchen to feed 80 homeless people. On the other hand, in a desire to be a safe place for children in our schools and daycare, sleepers are woken and booted out early, and the police are called if we cannot handle them. We can also be vain about our own thoughtful lifestyle. It is easier to promote organic food when we can afford to buy it. It is easier to reject bottled water when the people who designed our public water system live in our town. It is easier to be for peace when we live in a peaceful neighborhood and a strong nation. It is easier to take pride in feeling guilty for our privilege when we clearly have it. I am not saying we should not do or want or stand for sustainability, inclusivity, peace and love, just that as we find ourselves angry about the vanity, pride and selfishness of certain rising leaders and the Christians who have supported them. Now might be a good time to acknowledge our own selfishness and pride, the vanity in our virtue, and our continuing need for the grace of God. This conversation easily extends to our families as well, to those us who may be the equivalent of the angry virtuous son who stayed home to help the father, and then our brother burns his money on drinking, gambling and grabbing women, then comes home and wins the election for dad’s love. This line of thinking extends to those of us who are prone to give advice and admonish, and then be personally offended when our loved one doesn’t follow our obviously good advice. We are not the savior.

Yet the Good News of the Gospel is that while we are not the savior, despite the obvious fact that we fall far short of the glory of God, the eternal, sovereign, divine love of God through Christ is alive and well, and available to cleanse and empower you and me, here and now today. It may seem like our lives or our nation have taken a radical turn for the worse, like we have been sent into exile, like we have labored in vain, and spent our strength for nothing and vanity.

Yet thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we are saved by grace, and we can say with Isaiah, surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God. We are lucky and blessed if we can join with the many faithful who despite setbacks have stayed the course of love. If we know that Amazing Grace of Christ, then we know our hope is not in vain, and we will work for peace and justice, love and equality not merely because we are assured we will win, but because the act of living our God’s love is the ultimate reward in and of itself. In Christ, we have already won. It is a gift and a privilege to follow Jesus, the God of love.

I finish this day with an two extended paragraphs from Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail: King is responding to Christians who accuse him and other African American activists of wanting too much too fast:

“The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (and women) willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches; have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church, as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.