Back to the Future

Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div. - August 27, 2017

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Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Back to the Future

Isaiah 51:1-6closeAn error occurred.; Matthew 16:13-20closeAn error occurred.; Romans 12:1-8closeAn error occurred.


Part of who I am is a statistician. It began in high school and continues to this day. So let me throw some statistics at you about this passage from Isaiah. This is particularly for you grammarians.


There are three kinds of verbs: imperatives, past tense, and future tense.


The imperative is used seven times: listen (twice), look (three times), pay attention, gaze. These imperatives are all directed at the people to whom the prophet addressed these words. More on them later.


The past tense is used six times: were cut, were dug, gave birth, were also, blessed, and made many.


The future tense is 13 times: will comfort (twice)will make, will be found, will go out, will bring, hope, wait, will disappear, will wear out, will die, will endure, will be unbroken.


The prophet enjoins his listeners, which now includes later readers, and at this very moment each of us, not just to remember the past, but more decidedly to imagine the future. The prophet speaks words which Americans need to hear to day. He calls you and me look beyond the good and bad wonders of the past to a future which will endure forever and a righteousness which will be unbroken. The prophet calls all-right and alt-left, fascists and antifas to go beyond the myopic narrowness of their world views and to imagine right relationships with God and with each other, and through imagining to welcome God to create the future.


Our God is a creative and creating God who through prophets and evangelists, through gospel and prayer calls each of us to participate in imagining what God desires the fulfilled and final creation to look like. Imagining together is shared creating. The community of God’s people are invited to act in a good way like a committee, not finding the least common denominator, but in sharing and evolving together so that the dignity, the humanity, the imprinted image of God is visible and available to all.


It is easy for us to slough off the prophet’s words and claim that they apply to those people out there. They do, but they also apply to us, if not exactly in the current larger context, then most certainly in our own more local context.


The prophet spoke these words originally to “you who look for righteousness, you who seek the Lord.” Who were these people? They were the persecuted remnant of the exiles returning from Babylon who still believed in the goodness of God and the power of God to do good in the world. They believed this in spite of the rubble of Jerusalem that they tramped through and in spite of the jaded secular-leaning, done-with-God attitude prevalent in so many of the returning exiles. For so many, God had failed to uphold what they thought God had promised, God had failed to protect Jerusalem, God had turned his back and forgotten his own people. They looked down on those who still believed in God. Had it existed, they would have tweeted all many of scorn and derision against them.


Isaiah spoke to the despairing believers to encourage them in the midst of the rubble of Jerusalem, their trashed past glory, and their dashed hopes and dreams. They are in shock and can’t imagine how they will ever be able to rebuild all that was destroyed, replant all that was laid to waste, and restore all that was lost. To them the prophet says, Remember what God has done and know that God can and will do it again.


This is a message for today for the church in North America and other places where dying communities, aging congregations, dwindling budgets, and increasing costs run up against the hope that the church will survive long enough to bury each of us before turning the lights out and locking the door. And all this is set against a backdrop of culture shifts that have moved the Christian Church and most other religious organizations from the center of life to the corners, like so many shy introverts at a school year opening dance.


Despite those generalities, every congregation is unique and goes through its own equivalent to destruction, exile, and return. You are in the throes of that now. The calm idyllic life of Sunday worship with few demands for involvement and the comforting knowledge that things are well run and won’t get out of hand has been shattered by the reality of a significant change. The one who has worked to keep things steady for so many years while trying to move things toward a wider visibility and greater viability in a changing community is leaving. Not in anger, not in despair; just because it is time to move on.


The walls are crashing down around us, the core of our being is being shaken, the certainty of steadiness is dissolving. It is as if the eclipse happened, but the sun didn’t return.


The prophet doesn’t wallow in despair about how bad things are. Verbally he grabs the listeners by the shoulders and says, “Wake up. Have you forgotten what God has done at a variety of times in your history? If God did it then, God will do again.”


In our own situation, there are still two people in the congregation that remember when the expansion project on the back of 1842 building on North Street got into the sand backfill from the old canal bed and the rear wall of the building collapsed destroying the organ and exposing the sanctuary. Your ancestors in faith were devastated, but they moved forward every Friday evening serving home cooked meals to atomic plant construction workers to pay off the initial project expense and all the extra needed to rebuild the sanctuary wall.


Only eight of you were here when Pastor Roger Kelsey died in 1968 following a lengthy debilitating disease. The congregation, your faith forebears, sorrowed with Carol Kelsey, supported her, and moved on to call a new pastor to lead them.


There are less than 20 people in the congregation who were around in 1986 when Pastor Jack Pursell was encouraged to leave. This happened about the same time the atomic plant started its decline towards ultimate closure. Some congregants left because of the plant reduction, others left because of the internal struggle. But those that remained united and faced the future. The pastor nominating committee called a pastor with eleven years experience working in a small, non-urban church.


Forty percent of the current congregation weren’t here during the years leading up to the building of this building and making the journey from the old building to the new one sixteen years ago today. But many people from all walks of life and avenues of experienced envisioned what the future could be without steps and with amenities like parking, adequate comfort facilities, and an welcoming, hospitable atmosphere. People like Dick Craumer, Louise Jamison, John Hamlin, Maryanna Cassady, Clarence Monroe led countless others to make this place happen. The note I got with the check from Clarence Monroe’s estate to pay off the mortgage said it all: “Money is for mission, not mortgages.”


Now we are in 2017. It’s a new time, a new challenge, a new opportunity. Yes, the past has been glorious, and God did lead your predecessors well and wisely. So, who is going to say that God won’t do it again? The last thirty years have seen challenges, disappointments, more funerals than baptisms, confirmations, and marriages combined, tremendous Spirit presence in our midst, and more blessings than we can shake a Bible at. So, who is going to say that God won’t continue to hold us in the palm of the divine hand?


That’s the question Isaiah asks. That’s the affirmation that Isaiah makes.

Listen to me, you who look for righteousness, you who seek the Lord:Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. . . .Pay attention to me, my people;listen to me, my nation,for teaching will go out from me,my justice, as a light to the nations.I will quickly bring my victory.My salvation is on its way, . . . [T]he earth will wear out like clothing,and its inhabitants will die like gnats.But my salvation will endure forever,and my righteousness will be unbroken.

Isaiah does say that this world will evaporate, but he also says that those whom God delivers will not. The garden of joy, gladness, thanksgiving, and song that has been prepared for the redeemed will endure. Let your vital faith in God overrule your fears so that with God you can press forward through what may look like a barren, wasted land to the future which God has already prepared for you. There you will find strength and peace in the temporary gardens God planted in the deserts of our forebears, but even more in the expansive horizon of the garden that will finally, unshakably, perennially thrive.


The future will always be with us. Let’s not go back to the past but let us go back to the future with the God who will provide.


Unless noted otherwise, all scripture references are from The Common English Bible, © 2011
Copyright © 2017 First Presbyterian Church of Waverly, Ohio. Reprinted by permission.