The Future Is Not Yet

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 7, 2021

Isaiah 43:1-7

I was 16 years old when I saw the film, “2001 A Space Odyssey.” It made me wonder what life would be like in the year 2001, when I would be 47 years old. Would we really be going to work in flying cars?

My great grandmother told stories of making the months long journey from Missouri to Oregon in a covered wagon. Older folks would talk along the lines of the modern inventions they experienced, such as radio, the telephone and television. I wondered what great inventions I would tell my grandchildren about that weren’t around when I was their age. What would be “new-fangled” in my estimation? And when we experience the wonders of modern science, we realize that not all of them are so wonderful.

It’s difficult to predict the future because there are too many things about it that we can’t see; because we aren’t there yet. We can decide how we are going to live into the future, which is basically deciding how we are going to live for today. The choices we make today will have some bearing on our life in the future. The attitudes we live with today will have some bearing on our state of being in the future.

In 2001, when I was 47 years old, I was living a life that I could not have predicted, let alone imagined when I was 16. There was a day that I remember clearly. September 1, 2001. Lindsay and I had travelled to Scotland for a two-week continuing education event. We added some time for tourist travel. We would be flying home on September 2nd.

I was thinking about the future in a “where to now?” sort of way. That September 1st I spent a few hours alone, sitting on a bench in St. Andrews and looking out at the ocean. Sitting there thinking, having a conversation with God. My thoughts were, “I don’t have any idea what the future holds, but I trust that you hold it and that you will be there when I get there.”

It was time to go and before I did, I wandered down to the beach and picked up a small stone. It would be a reminder of the afternoon. When I we got back home, I put it on my bookshelf as a souvenir from Scotland.

Not long after that was September 11, 2001 when so much happened and so much about life as we knew it changed dramatically. That day we met Cathy Lu, a professor at UC Berkley. She had been in Washington DC making a presentation to a congressional committee about a technological development that would combine cell phones and cameras. Her plane home was grounded in Minneapolis. We had heard about travelers stranded at the airport, so on the feeling that we had to “do something,” we drove to the airport and like so many other folks that day, welcomed a stranger into our home.

About a month after the events of 9/11, while the United States was making preparations for what would become the longest war in our history, I received a mailing about a conference for pastors to be held in California. “Dear Colleague in Ministry,” it began.” “As we enter the third millennium we face some new and different challenges.” So far, so good. Most of these things are “so far, so good” through about the second or third sentence. It continued, “If Christianity is going to survive and thrive in the third millennium, Christianity will require a ‘facelift.’ If you’re preaching the gospel every week, you’re preaching good news. You can’t deliver good news with a frowning, angry face. You have to smile.”

Looking out from the letter was the smiling face of Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral. The brochure went on to describe a conference for pastors where we could hear the “best” Christian leaders in the world, as well as have some fun.

Some of the fun events of the conference were a “Pastors Masters Golf Tournament,” and a “Sony Pictures Studio Tour followed by Lunch at Gladstone’s in Malibu.” That one promised travel by luxury buses as well as, “On the two-hour guided tour, we will visit the wardrobe department and watch sets being made for upcoming productions. You will see the sound stage where the Yellow Brick Road once wound through Munchkinland.”

“If Christianity is going to survive,” is a faulty premise. It says that God is not capable of keeping the church alive. The irony is that the feel-good religion advertised in that brochure didn’t survive another ten years, let alone well into the “third millennium.” Robert Schuller died in 2006 and his religious empire went bankrupt. The Crystal Cathedral is now the Christ Cathedral of the local Roman Catholic diocese.

Christianity is about things like religious facelifts and visits to Munchkin Land. The way of Jesus is about justice, truth and goodness. Justice may not leave you feeling good, but it will certainly leave you feeling right. The truth might not make you happy, but it will set you free. Goodness is more than a smile, it’s the hard work of loving even the unlovely and unlovable. That kind of Christianity does more than survive, it thrives.

Around 2,400 years ago, God’s people wondered if they would survive. Some of them were held captive in a foreign land and the rest of them scattered and disconnected. The people who had once been a great nation were in real danger of snuffing out like burned down candle.

There was a voice of prophecy, a vision for the future as God intended it. The prophet may have himself been a captive. He wrote under the name of Isaiah, whom we know as 3rd Isaiah. In chapter 43 of the book of Isaiah, the prophet spoke of a time when God’s people would be brought back together. They would go home. They would come from all parts of the world where they were scattered.

And the most important thing, they would be safe and secure in God’s love:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned . . .”

This prophecy was so far removed from the reality of their lives that it required a supreme act of faith to grasp it. But it came to pass, and they did come home. Yet there is a sharp edge to this good news. It does not say, “Nothing bad will ever happen to you.” Quite the contrary.

“When you pass through the waters and through the rivers . . .”

“When you walk through fire . . .”

Not if, but when. God says, “I’m not going to save you from bad things. That’s life. When they happen, just remember, I am with you. Because I am with you, you don’t have to be afraid, even in the face of death.”

This deep underlying truth of our faith helps me to understand something. If the purpose of faith is to make us feel good, to smile and keep a happy Munchkinland view of reality, then how do we deal with the bad things that happen? Not just our own bad things, but when I am invited to join the best Christian leaders in the world, I ask, “What about?”

What about the holocaust? Where was God when seven million Jews were exterminated? And I ask, not only the holocaust, but also all the pogroms of all the centuries past, when even those who bore the label Christian tried to destroy God’s children? And I think, not just about the holocaust, but what about the 20th century in general? The century in which more people were killed by war and conflict than all the people who died in all the previous wars of recorded history.

I can’t help but ask, “Where were the best Christian leaders in the world,”

When the foundations for Auschwitz were being laid;

When enough nuclear destruction is stockpiled to destroy the planet;

When our capacity to produce garbage outstrips our available landfills;

When we plan to build prisons that will be ready in time for today’s ten-year old’s;

When we rely on goods produced by child and sweatshop labor.

Probably the word “best” doesn’t describe the sort of leadership God requires. Those who are simply “faithful followers” don’t need a luxury bus ride to Munchkinland.

That little rock I picked up from the shore at St. Andrew’s made the journey back to Scotland. I took it back to where I found it and threw it into the ocean. I had no idea what the future would bring, but I was happy to see how it would turn out. The Poet Rainer Maria Rilke said of the future:

“The future: time’s excuse to frighten us; too vast a project, too large a morsel for the heart’s mouth. The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”

And just when I thought it was all said and done, it was as if God was saying, “Hey, remember that day at the ocean in St. Andrews. Are you still trusting me to hold the future for when you get there? Well, you’re not there just yet.” And so, here we are.

God does not call us to be the best of anything. God calls us only to be faithful and God calls us by name: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And so we are. Amen.

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