THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, September 24, 2017
God Is Not Leaving the Building
Did you ever wonder, “Why am I here?” Not the existential question, but why here, in this place. When I was in elementary school, my family would take day trips. My mother would navigate using a map. We would follow state and federal routes, but sometimes the routes would take us through some areas that no longer had much luster to them. You could tell that they were something once, but not any more. She would say, “I’ll be glad to get out of here.” It wasn’t as strong a complaint as the that of the Israelites in the wilderness, but it was the same sort of thought.
When I got the call to my first church, I was just glad to be any place where they would pay me to do what I had begun learning to do. It didn’t matter that the land was as flat at the dining room table or that most of it was acres of wheat, soybeans, and corn. After five years I thought that I should begin looking for the next call. I had a few inquiries. I was runner up for one church.
But after five more years, I was still in Rockford. Then I found out why. The church suffered a fire that destroyed the interior of the sanctuary and overflow area. The reason I was still there was to use those ten years of presence and experience to lead the people through the remodeling effort.
I left off seeking a call for nine months. As the end of the remodeling was coming into sight, three women representing a congregation in southern Ohio insisted on talking with me at a church and pastor search event. They insisted that I come visit and preach in a neutral pulpit, and then insisted that I was the one for their church.
It was a whirlwind but after leading the Rockford people back into their new sanctuary, I was whisked off to Waverly, like Philip ending up in Azotus after he had baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the road between Jerusalem to Gaza.
Why was I here? I had not intended to go to southern Ohio. I had once turned down an inquiry from a church in this part of the world. It became evident after several years why I was meant to be here. The trustees started talking about the challenges of the existing buildings and the options of renovation, partial razing and reconstruction, or relocation. By the time my mental timetable for thinking about finding a new call arrived, we were up to our eyeballs in construction planning and details. And that, by the grace of God, was why I was here.
I am sure that Jacob was turning over in his mind why he was where he was. He had been a trickster since before birth, grappling with his fraternal but not identical twin Esau for the right to come out of the womb first. He lost that, but years later for the price of a meal of bread and lentil stew he bought the rights of the first son from Esau. And still later, he cheated Esau out of the patriarchal death-bed blessing. For his own safety his mother Rebekah sent him into exile with her extended family. Today’s reading happens when he is on his way to Haran and the family homestead of Laban.
On the way he camped out one night and through a dream received his – the third generation – blessing from God who renewed the promise first given to grandfather Abraham that his descendants will flourish and will one day possess the land on which he was sleeping. The restatement of the promise concludes with God saying that “Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I am with you everywhere you go.”
I am sure Jacob wondered where he was going and what he would encounter. Because we know the end of the story, we know that he found Laban, fell in love with Rachel, married Leah on a bait and switch done by Laban, then married Rachel, and their female servants. Jacob cheated his father-in-law out of the best animals in the herds, and stole the family’s household gods. He had to leave Haran and his only option was to return to his homeland. He dreaded having to meet Esau. It turned out that Esau welcomed him. Jacob’s family prospered. The next generation went to Egypt under the care of Joseph, and the Israelites hunkered down to wait in toil for God to send Moses. So God did protect Jacob and his descendants.
His descendants include each of us.
And while God’s promised protection is an important take-away from this passage, I want to suggest that an even more important piece of the passage is Jacob’s response to the dream. He thought, “This sacred place is awesome. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.” What that means is that God was there and in fact God is there – in the present, not the past or the future tense. Jacob’s realization is that “God is here.”
“Here” is a movable place. Because God said to Jacob, “I will protect you everywhere you go.” This was Jacob’s first direct encounter with God. It was Jacob’s call from God, his being drafted into the promise first given to his grandparents Abraham and Sarah. He had been only an heir to the promise; now the promise was laid upon him. God had opened his house to Jacob.
The Hebrew scripture, our Old Testament, is filled with stories of individuals going after gods which are not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What those seekers didn’t understand is that we don’t have to seek after God; God seeks after us and finds us. That was mostly because they thought God was somewhere else, anywhere else but here.
When several of your congregational ancestors first came to this piece of ground, they sensed that God is in this place. There was a special vibe. Some spoke of it, others reacted in ways that indicated that they knew this was holy ground. That isn’t to say that God wasn’t at 122 East North Street. God was, and had been. Witness the building of the original church, its earliest expansion 40 years later, the expansion and rebuilding nearly 70 years ago, and its renovation 20 years after that. In the sojourn of ministry, God led people of faith from that house of God to this piece of holy ground. God is here.
God is here in the all the people that have come through these doors, spent time with us and moved on in ministry in other locations or were transferred to the great cloud of witnesses the Hebrews letter writer extols. I have met God here in people who have been quiet and unassuming as well as in people who have been outspoken or towering presences. You, too, have met God in these people. I have met God here in visitors and in those who show up every time the doors are opened. You have met God in these people. I have met God in the quietness of the space and in the wondrous singing of a full congregation. I am sure that you have too.
I want you to take Jacob’s “aha” moment there at Bethel and make it your own, make this place your Bethel. I want you to understand that, in spite of our human foibles, our innate tendencies to sin, or our varied world viewpoints, God is here and is at work in what you do here — worshiping, praying, singing hymns, studying scripture, watering plants, folding bulletins, moving chairs, eating donuts.
God is not leaving the building. The person who has been the pastor for the last thirty is leaving, but God is not. The same God who brought me into your midst will be with Paula and me as we settle into a new life. The same God who brought you to this congregation, two years or two decades ago, remains here. The same God who brought me here, who brought Bob Getty and Charlotte O’Neil here, will bring your next pastor, whether that person stays a short time or a long time. God is not leaving the building.
God is here for the duration. God is here even as I speak and you listen. God is here in the silences between our words. God is here in anthem and antiphon. God is here in scripture and sermon. God is here in font and table. God is here. God has not left the building. God is not leaving the building. God will not leave the building.
You are here. God is here.