Sermon: State of our Union

Matthew 4:17-23

Since I’m about to give our version of the “State of the Union” address typically given by U.S. presidents, I thought I’d check out last year’s State of the Union address to get a sense of the similarities and differences between that ritual and ours. Similarities? People come in late for that event, too. And, it’s hard to get people to stop talking to each other and get started. Nancy Pelosi has to bang that gavel, hard, several times. Maybe our worship leaders should do that? As for differences:  Joanna or I don’t normally get introduced — “Ladies and gentleman, the pastors of FMCSF!” — and then we don’t walk into the sanctuary as you all stand and clap. Why doesn’t that happen? And you don’t keep standing and applauding once we step up to the podium, such that we have to say, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much” as a way of quieting you down and then when we say that you clap even louder and start cheering, and we stand there, humbly. And this clapping and cheering keeps happening again and again throughout the speech. Again, why not?

We have been through it, as a community and as a world community. Three years ago almost to this day, the city of Wuhan in China locked down due to the novel SARS COVID-2 virus. This was a fact unknown to me at the time and perhaps to many of us. Six weeks later, we all knew about SARS COVID-2, and our lives started changing. Our community went online for the next 18 months. Many of our folks – including core members and families – became part of the great exodus of people leaving California, seeking lower housing prices. Others who stayed drifted away from our community. Our church was irrevocably changed.  As we began slowly, slowly regathering in the fall of 2021, many faces were no longer here. The children who did come back came back as new people, almost two years older. We had missed so much. Some of our youth had moved away with their families, while the youth who stayed were re-engaging with other social communities and not identifying as strongly with the church, despite Joanna doing a fabulous job of keeping them connected throughout the pandemic. Attendance was way down. Many of us grieved these losses. Some of us wondered if we’d ever recover our previous vigor and dynamism as a community. 

Well, let me just say: We have! (This would be the time for applause and cheering.) Wonderful, new people have walked through our doors and re-enlivened the church. It’s so wonderful to be in community with you! We innovated as a community and found new ways to extend our reach.  We are now both a local and a geographically diffuse community. Thanks to Alan’s technical wizardry, folks from as far away as India (Hi, Benj!) join us in worship in a robust, interactive way.  And I don’t know if all of you know how many groups now meet online. Monthly, I convene support groups for folks both local and remote who have aging parents or young children. Across the miles, people provide care and support to each other. It’s really beautiful to see. Monthly, people who used to attend in person gather for an “oblates” meeting. This spirited group of 13 provides spiritual formation and community and a connection back to the mother ship for people who do not want to lose from their life what we have here together. And weekly, we have three different groups meeting for prayer and contemplative practices.

In addition to the way our community has expanded beyond these walls, we also deepened together spiritually as a community during the pandemic. As Joanna said so well at a recent Elders meeting, we had to dig deep spiritually during that time, and in doing so, we discovered our fortitude and resilience. Something unimaginable happened to us, and we got through it. And as COVID exposed so vividly the needs and hurts of our society, we realized that our community matters. People need what we offer to each other. 

This realization has resulted in even deeper commitment to this community among those of you still here and those who have chosen to be a part of the community since we regathered. We saw this in the way some of you were able to make an even deeper financial commitment to our community during this last budget cycle. Pastoral staff sees this in what has felt like a flood of creative energy. As Pat said at the same Elders meeting, we on staff are running to keep up with you all!  You are brimming with ideas for documenting our community’s unique history (thank you, Jonathan), special music (thank you, Aaron and all who have participated), and how to get more people involved in worship, especially our youth. You are hungry to dig into learning and spiritual formation opportunities. We now have a children’s music education program, and an all-time high number of adults teaching Sunday School.  There’s a lot of energy around parties and gatherings. We are in such a different place than a year ago. 

As a way of offering thanks for the new life among us, let’s stand and sing verses 1 and 4 of “New earth, heaven new” (#377).

That was a look at where we’ve come from and who we are now as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic. But at the Elders  meeting, we also looked ahead. “Who do we want to become?” we asked ourselves. “What new energies are bubbling up among us? How is the Spirit calling to us to follow?”

We grouped these noticings into two big buckets. The first one we called “letting our light shine.” Now, please don’t be frightened when I say this (religious trigger warning!) but there is more evangelical energy in this congregation than I have ever experienced before. It’s like I said: We realize that our community matters. There is good news here, and we want to share it!  We know people need to belong to a caring community. We know people want to engage with their spiritual lives and the Christian story in ways that are liberating, relevant, meaningful, and grounding in such a chaotic world.  And we know that the world needs us to be a moral force in this city and in the broader world. And so, I want to name a few ways we are letting our light shine:

  • The Outreach Committee got a $1,500 grant from Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference to update our website so that it better reflects who we are, so it shines our light even brighter. This is part of a larger effort to more effectively “market” ourselves as a community. 
  • We have noticed how our host, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, has offered its gifts to the wider Jewish community through offering online courses, and we are also hoping to do that. Like our host, we have a unique way of “doing religion” — we’ve sometimes referred to it as the Gospel according to FMCSF. I wish you could hear our oblates, those folks who have left, talk about how difficult it is to find a community that offers what we do. We want more people to have access to that spiritual formation.
  • We are talking about documenting more fully the history of this congregation as an LGBTQ+ pioneer in the Mennonite Church. Might this result in a book? An online archive of videos with interviews or oral histories from our LGBTQ elders? Our story of radical welcome and inclusion at a time when that was not happening in the wider church or world needs to be told. 
  • We are talking about how to offer a full-tech, fully interactive service every Sunday. To do that, we are going to need more Alans. So, if you have interest in getting trained to run our Sunday morning tech, please talk to me or Alan. In fact if you want to be involved with any of what I’ve mentioned, please come to me or Joanna or Pat.
  • We want to deepen our involvement with Faith in Action and the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. I mean, wow, look at how we are already doing this! This church raised $100K to hire Sarah Augustine as the executive director for the Coalition and then we issued a challenge grant to the entire Mennonite Church that raised more than $100K. We twice provided hospitality and public support for members of the San Carlos Apache tribe as they sought justice through the 9th District Court. We have knocked on doors, along with other people of faith in SF, to encourage folks to vote for a measure that would provide more money for housing for low-income seniors and families — a measure that won! We are becoming that powerful moral voice. We also continue our monthly solidarity singing vigils at CSZ to embody our commitment to ending antiSemitism and violence against Jewish communities. 

The second bucket, Elders called “expanding our welcome.” While “letting our light shine” is more about outreach, “expanding our welcome” is more about in-reach. I really don’t like that word, but it’s a fitting metaphor. It’s about being even more expansively welcoming to the folks who are already here among us, including: 

  • As Sharon says so pithily, we welcome the “l” and “g” of “lgbtq+” quite well. But we maybe don’t do as good of a job at the “btq” welcome. I don’t think this is because of a lack of desire; I think it’s that we just need to learn more about what would be welcoming to people with those identities. One small step is beginning to put pronouns on our name tags.
  • We are now a bilingual community — you may have noticed our new, mostly bilingual order of worship or Noemi interpreting for Maria Elena and Moises in the back of the congregation. We feel called to continue to expand our welcome to folks across lines of difference related to language, ethnicity or race, and culture. One example of how we’re moving forward with that: Right before the pandemic, we were planning to have an intercultural competency training. The national Mennonite church  has a number of trainers who come to congregations, do an assessment of where they are in terms of our intercultural competency, and then suggest next steps. We’re hoping to offer that training this year. 
  • One of the blessings of the pandemic is that it created more opportunities for folks with disabilities to participate in various communities. I remember one pastor saying, “We didn’t realize how unwelcoming we were to folks who couldn’t physically get to our church until we went online and those people were able to show up and participate.” For me and many others, that’s made us more aware of the broader question of disability access. Our host congregation is doing some great work around this, and we want to also. We’re planning to kick this off by doing a series on disability access this year. 
  • Last, we’re aware that this is a hard city for many people to make their way in because of the escalating housing affordability crisis. Many 20 and 30 somethings who were once a part of a thriving young adult community here have moved away to more affordable pastures as a result. We want to have more conversations with the wonderful young adults who remain about how we can support and encourage community among them and how we can continue to support all who are dealing with this crisis.

In the passage we heard from Matthew, Jesus proclaims his essential message, which is “Repent for the kindom of heaven has come near.” And then he begins calling people to follow him in announcing and enacting this kindom, in living it out in real time. “Repent” is a word we often associate with guilt and shame. It has been used in abusive ways. But the Greek word from which it comes — metanoia — means to “turn around,” to “change one’s mind and therefore to change direction.” It means to examine one’s choice of direction, recognize a need for any changes, and then to more consciously choose the direction in which you really want to go. As we have emerged from the worst of this pandemic, I think we’ve been involved as a community in a process of repentance. We are choosing to turn and being forced to turn toward new possibilities. We are examining ourselves – our gifts and capacities – and reorienting more consciously in the direction that the Spirit seems to be calling us.  

May this Spirit continue to entice us in this turning and may we continue to be enticed.  And as we expand our welcome, and live into the community we are becoming, may our light shine ever brighter.