“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)
I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.
In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town. “Repairers of the breach” rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in.” To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.
With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town. There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay. At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?
The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.
Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.
With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa. Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.
But there was another side to that story. J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town. They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods. (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)
The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering. Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.
The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”
Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community. In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?”
The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”. It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.
After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.
Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”
I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.
Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done. Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down). The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.
All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.
And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”
Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.
Isaiah 58, verse 2: God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”
God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us). And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.
The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future. Here’s what I mean:
Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.
But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t. Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past. The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.
God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.
And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?
God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us. And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there. The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.
Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:
- Your light shall break forth like the dawn
- Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
- Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
- The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
- You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
- The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
- You shall raise up foundations for many generations
- You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
- You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
- God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”
That’s the vision. Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands. All these things will happen if we will do the following:
- Work for justice
- Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
- Feed the hungry
- Welcome the poor
- Cover the naked
- Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
- Stop pointing fingers at each other
- Stop speaking evil
- Satisfy the needy
- Honor the Sabbath
That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)
When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.
A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath. In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.
Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.
As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”
And in our own towns, things are starting to happen. In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.
So let’s take the next step. I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.
Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16