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Sa2GuDhYou are ambassadors for Christ.

It has been my privilege to be your pastor for these past ten plus years. Today, as my family and I bid you all farewell, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on that time, as I have been doing over the past few weeks. There are many precious moments I will treasure from our brief time together. Speaking personally, I will always remember how you rejoiced with us in the birth of our two children. You are the community that, when they were baptized, made promises on their behalf. Elizabeth and I have passed milestones in our marriage and in our ages – well, at least I have. I have also celebrated milestones in my ordination. You have prayed with us as we have worried about our family. As Elizabeth’s mother’s health has deteriorated, you have cared for her. As my father died too young and my grandmother died at a blessed 99 years, you have wept with us in grief, a critical part of our healing.

You are ambassadors for Christ.

All of this mirrors the love and welcome you show the world around you. When a young Oglethorpe University student died suddenly over a winter break, you opened up this space for the community to grieve. You did the same as a young man at Chamblee High School tragically took his own life. None of them were members of the congregation, but that wasn’t what was important. What mattered was that they hurt and you ached with them.

You have done as Christ taught, welcoming the stranger, providing sanctuary and worship space for Spanish-speaking immigrants, giving them the opportunity to grow in their witness and move into their own space with expanded ministries.

You have followed Jesus’ teaching, giving home to the homeless. You have built more than a dozen Habitat homes. You have provided meals and fellowship and hope at Journey Men’s Shelter. You have given coffee to Mercy Community Church for their daily stret ministry. You have shared support with Thornwell Home for Children. You are embarking on co-sponsorship of a refugee resettlement program with New American Pathways.

You are ambassadors for Christ.

You have also done as Christ commanded in welcoming the little children. You have nurtured hundreds of children in our Preschool program, even when they sang “This Little Light of Mine” for the umpteenth time. You have welcomed children into this space, so that their voices can also cry out in praise. This is how they learn what it means to worship God as part of a community of love and warmth.

You have made space in worship for different styles of music, remembering that we are not the audience – God is. I still remember the first time we had drums in the Sanctuary, finishing the worship service with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, and Ralston Woods hobbling up to me at the end of the service, saying with a touch of menace in his voice, “There was only one thing wrong with that last song.” After a pregnant pause, he continued, “It wasn’t long enough! We need more of that!”

You are ambassadors for Christ.

A couple of days ago, Elizabeth, the boys, and I walked up and down the hallways, nooks, and crannies of this place. We shared memories and told stories: moments of celebration, times of grief, hard conversations, illuminating conversations, places where our children were cared for, where we were cared for.

I remembered greeting children as they arrived for Preschool, counseling with families in my office in times of distress, celebrating communion around the table and even around the sanctuary. The boys remembered playing in Preschool classrooms and on the playground, Sunday School classes and children’s choir. Elizabeth remembered Worship on the Lawn and Screen on the Green and painting walls and hanging pictures. Each and every room had its own special memory. Some of these, I know, will fade with time. Some will grow stronger. And some, as is the nature of memory, will change. Regardless, the core of these remembrances will remain the same: you are ambassadors for Christ.

We ended our tour in the Memorial Garden, where the ashes of at least forty one of the saints of the Church are interred. There are rocks scattered as well, names written on them from our All Saints’ Services where we remember those for whom we have prayed and loved.

This was a fitting place for the family to end our extended walk, as it gave me pause to look back not just over ten years, but over the more than sixty-five years that Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has ministered, witnessed, and worshiped. There have been many times that I have found myself aimlessly wandering the grounds, lost in thought and dicernment, only to arrive back at the Memorial Garden. It is there that I would sit in prayer. I would invite the saints to pray with me. And in that prayer, I sought communion with them. Together, we prayed for wisdom for the faith, hope, and love of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church.

If you had asked me what the result of those prayers would have been, I would have been wrong. I assumed that, in this place that memorializes the past, I would sense a call to tradition, an obligation toward preserving what was and has been. Instead, I have experienced freedom. It is a freedom that is rooted in that past, yes, in the legacy of this congregation and in the Christ we serve. And in that history, I have been reminded of how this community has stepped out on faith time and time and time again. Oglethorpe Presbyterian was on the forefront of support for civil rights and in electing and entrusting women to leadership as deacons, elders, and ministers. Through it all, the saints of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been a reminder for me that what is of utmost importance is doing those things that are faithful.

It is not about doing what is popular, or what keeps the peace or even what is expedient at a given time. Rather, it is about doing what is faithful to the God we know in Christ. And it is about doing these things not just when it is feasible, but when it is just and right. Not in human time, in other words, but in God’s time.

This central principle is in your DNA. It is imprinted on you as the precious image of God. It has served you well, and I know that it will for all of the years to come.

In the words of our lesson this morning, it is not the superficial things that drive you. It is not human standards by which you measure things. It is rather through the lens of reconciliation that you see the world. You are, in Paul’s words, ambassadors for Christ, messengers of grace, envoys of love and mercy.

And as I take my leave of this place, I go out to be an ambassador for Christ, too, carrying the hope and joy and faith of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, of the God we serve in Jesus Christ.

You may have noticed that this ministry is no less important in 2016 than it was in 1949. People are being targeted for death because of their sexuality; and we are called to embrace all of God’s beloved. The stranger and the exile are blamed for every problem under the sun; we are those whom Christ commands to welcome the foreigner in our midst. Those who view God differently than we do are treated with abject suspicion; we are ambassadors for the one who sought out the despised, risking that he himself might be despised.

This is the hope you all carry within you. You are the body of Christ, the community of faith, the saints of Christ’s Church. No matter what else you do, if you keep welcoming those who are unlike you, if you continue to reach out beyond those idolatrous boundaries that we are told are there keep us safe, if you remain faithful to the God who constantly stretches and reaches and loves the world, even at its most unlovable, then you will be what you have always been: ambassadors for Christ.

I thank you for an amazing ten years. And above all, I give thanks to God for you and your witness. As I go, I will pray for you, holding you, God’s people, in my heart.

Amen.

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My News

goodwp.com_32400Dear Oglethorpe Presbyterian Friends and Family,

I write to you with bittersweet news. After worship yesterday, I shared with Session leaders that I have accepted a call to begin a new Presbyterian worshiping community. While my family and I are sure of God’s voice in this new adventure, we will miss Oglethorpe Presbyterian deeply.

I have often described my call to Oglethorpe in 2005 as “magnetic”, having arrived with absolute, gravitational clarity. And so, I knew that my next call would be similarly irresistible: not a call away from Oglethorpe, but a call to something new.

For the next year, I will be in Atlanta apprenticing with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s national initiative 1001 New Worshiping Communities. The program is meant to “ignite a movement”, where leaders will be “using new and varied forms of church for our diverse and changing culture.” The process is flexible and shifting, a prospect thrills and overwhelms me. I have learned to recognize these as the hallmarks of God.

Elizabeth and I will always cherish our ten and a half years at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. We have raised our boys here, and, blessedly, you are everything they know of Church. Your openness, willingness to experiment, and overflowing grace have allowed all four of us to grow in faith, hope, and love. And this character of Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the foundation of what lies ahead. As you welcome your next pastor and move into what God has in store, I pray the words of the prophet Jeremiah will be an anchor: “Surely I know the plans I have for you…a future filled with hope.” (Jer. 29:11)

My last day at Oglethorpe Presbyterian will be Sunday, June 19, at which point my pastoral duties will draw to a close. This change in relationship is required by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, and also must be done out of fairness to current and future leadership at Oglethorpe. I appreciate your willingness to honor this new reality.

I leave Oglethorpe rejoicing in the sure knowledge that we may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future.

Grace and Peace,

Marthame Sanders, Pastor

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20101108-082626.jpgIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

I have told the story before of my friend Fr. Thomas, the Greek Orthodox priest. We got to know him when we moved in as his neighbors during our time in Palestine. If you were going to craft a caricature of a Greek Orthodox priest you wouldn’t end up with someone as magnificent as Fr. Thomas. Everywhere he went, he wore his black robe and black hat. His grayish white beard flowed down onto his chest, and his long hair in back was tied up in a ponytail.

Fr. Thomas was never quite sure what to do with us Presbyterians. We weren’t Catholics, which was a plus in his book, but we were Protestants, which had historically had little to do with the Orthodox church. Over time, he learned to trust us. One Friday, I rode with him down to Tubas, a little village to the south of the one in which we lived. The 50 or so Christians there lived among 17,000 Muslims.

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for a car, Fr. Thomas turned toward me: “You Protestants.” I waited for the accusation that came next. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?” I paused, thinking about how Protestants had distanced themselves from Rome, probably throwing out some practices because of guilt by association, and I decided I had more to learn by listening than talking.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “These three fingers represent the unity of God in Trinity! And these two are the humanity and divinity of Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary! He is True God from True God, descended to be one of us. He rose again, sits on the right hand, and will come again.”

“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple…”

We are better in community than we are on our own.

Today we mark Trinity Sunday. In 2016, the Trinity can come across as one of those archaic philosophies that might have made sense back in 325 but not anymore. We are monotheists, but believe that God is in three persons? Jesus is God, and also God’s Son? Let’s just skip all the complications and boil it down to “try and be nice to others.”

Let’s be honest. Christian faith comes with a series of challenges. First, we claim to find eternal meaning in a collection of books written almost 2000 years ago, intended for a Middle Eastern sheep-herding, olive harvesting people. Second, we are guided by doctrines like incarnation and the Trinity that grew out of ancient Greek philosophical notions about life, the universe, and everything. And third, we live in a culture that runs counter to our faith – especially among those whom we would consider our fellow adherents, treating Christianity as a national tribe of self-defense rather than a sacrificial way of selflessness to a world in need. Why bother?

Because we are better in community than we are on our own.

Look. The Trinity, as a doctrine, might seem like impenetrable philosophical gymnastics. God is Father, God is Son, God is Spirit. Father is, and isn’t, Son; Son is, and isn’t, Spirit. Spirit is, and isn’t, Father. Three, and One. It’s like steam, water, and ice. Or like idea, word, and breath. Or like one finger with three segments. Does any of this help? And if it does, does it help us to understand something about God, or what it means to have faith in that God?

If nothing else, here’s what I hope the Trinity suggests to us today: the essence of God is community. God is one. There is no god but God. And that same God, the source of all that was, is, and will be, is expressed in the community of Trinity. The Father needs the Son. The Son needs the Spirit. The Spirit needs the Father. They all need each other for their holiness to be made real.

And what that means for us, those of us who want to reflect the character of God that we know and love, is that we are meant to be in community; because we are better in community than we are on our own.

When Paul and Timothy write to the church in Corinth in our lesson this morning, it is the sense of being knit together as people of faith that emerges in their writing. Paul and Timothy know that the Corinthians are suffering, a suffering that Paul and Timothy empathize with and even share in. In that suffering, they write, they are connected to the suffering of Jesus himself.

One summer, I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital outside of Chicago. I visited one day with a young woman who had come in because of a nasty infection, only to get another one at the hospital. In abject pain and sleepless nights, she looked up on the wall and saw what was on every room in the hospital: Jesus on the cross. It was as though, she told me, Jesus was saying to her, “I know your pain. Your pain is my pain.” And being joined with Jesus’ suffering, she said, gave her great comfort and strength to endure.

As Paul and Timothy tell the Corinthians, it is the prayers of the Corinthians that give Paul and Timothy hope and perseverance. We are better in community than we are on our own.

This is why we form churches and worship together and serve together and become members – to be in community, to strengthen, challenge, and grow our faith in Christ.

We are better in community than we are on our own.

The Orthodox liturgy Fr. Thomas celebrates is a complicated liturgical dance. From the intricate clothing to the detailed instruments, everything tied into Scripture and theology – perhaps nothing more than the Eucharistic bread.

The bread itself bears a stamp that is baked into it. There is the shape of the cross, with “Christ is Victory” written three times down the middle. As the priest prepared the bread for the liturgy, he takes a golden knife in the shape of a spear, piercing the bread, carefully taking out a piece, and placing it on a plate, under a tent of sorts. This represents the grotto in which the Christ child was born.

The priest then takes the piece of Christ-bread and mixed into the chalice of wine, the body and blood coming together. He then cuts pieces of bread for the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, the prophets and angels, the disciples, apostles and saints of the church, and mixes them into the cup. Then, as members of the congregation come forward to whisper their prayer requests to him, he cuts out pieces for each of them, mixing those into the wine.

Finally, the congregation processes forward, as the priest spoon-feeds the communion mixture to each of them. Much like the prophet Isaiah’s lips were purified with the burning coal, so the members of the congregation are being purified, the spoon representing the tongs that held the coal.

In other words, in communion, Orthodox Christians are united with this whole stretch of God’s salvation history: stretching back to creation, through Noah and the flood, sweeping through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, into the birth of Jesus, his ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection, catching up Paul and Timothy and the Corinthians, and on into the present day, with hope for what is to come. All of this is done in community: the sufferings and joys alike united in that cup, and shared by all who are there, bearing one another in grief and celebration, all of it tied back into Jesus himself, the one who lived life out of death, redemption out of suffering, hope out of despair.

And that’s what we do today at this table. In form, it looks very different from what Fr. Thomas brings to his people. There is no spear, no spoon, no grotto. What we do have is bread and cup. And as we share in these things, we do them together, because we are better in community than we are on our own.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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3001809-poster-942-you-are-here-why-location-smartphones-killer-mapThe Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

My reflection this morning will be a little different. Those of you who come here regularly are probably saying to yourself, “So, what’s new?”

Fair enough; on this Pentecost morning, the Spirit will draw us again and again into now as we mark several important events happening in the life of our community, ultimately gathering around the table to break bread and share cup. The gift that the Holy Spirit gives us, one that we are likely to neglect otherwise, is to pay attention to this moment: here…now…reminding us that God is at work for us, in us, and through us.

Most of us tend to avoid the moment before us. And for some of us, that means getting caught up in the past. We let grievances and traumas get the best of us, defining us not as who we are, but as what has happened to us. Or maybe we think that the best approach is to just put those things behind us, to gut them out.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Our ability to heal from old wounds can only come when we are willing to seek out those who have the spiritual gift of healing – healing in body, in mind, in spirit. They are the ones God has gifted to strengthen us so that we can face the past, come to terms with it, and even find redemption in it.

In healing our pasts, we would do well to remember the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a fierce seeker of God. It was this fierceness that gave him the limp that he carried the rest of his life. And so, his battle scars ran deep – but his faith ran far, far deeper.

For others of us, the past defines us in ways that seem like misty, near perfection. We reminisce, holding onto precious memories, wishing life could be that way now. The more we learn about memory, however, the more we understand how unreliable it is. This means that we risk becoming captives to nostalgia, to things that never were or, at least, were not the way we choose to remember them.

More importantly, though, as people of faith, it means that we tend to think of God as someone or something that was at work only in the past, as though God has given up on creation, leaving us to our own devices. This idea runs counter to everything we say we believe; and yet, it can take hold of us.

The truth is that God is at much at work in this moment as at any other time behind or before us. Even in those times that it feels like God is away, God is very much here – closer than our own breath.

There are times when we need to be reminded of that truth, of God’s constant presence.

Some of us flee the present moment in exchange for what is yet to come. We get caught up in looking forward, planning ahead, mapping out the road in front of us, that we neglect the beauty of what is happening. It’s as though we are walking along the beach, but remain focused on where the car is back in the parking lot, and never cast our gaze toward the endless horizon.

We can also let anxiety about the unknown future take hold of us. Our financial worries, our medical fears, our relationship uncertainties – all of them can trap us in places where hope gets dampened. And yet, just like we talked about last week, even if we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. In other words, we are going to be OK, no matter what, because God will always be God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

From our lesson this morning, when Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, this is exactly what he was talking about. God uses our excellence, those things that bring us joy, for the sake of God’s desires. We are, each of us, gifted by God for the working of God’s hopes and joys. The invitation is to move deeper into God so that we might not only find those gifts, but also to discover God’s own self.

And in exploring that faith, we also hope to find ourselves and our unique calling, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit that rests on each of us. In other words, faith in Christ ought to be something that speaks to us in its own particular way and, at the same time, knit each of our strands into a wonderful tapestry of shared faith.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift, drawing us deeper into this moment, now.

Today we mark that ancient Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit visited the disciples, flames of fire dancing on their heads, sending them out into the streets, gifting them with languages they had never known, giving birth to the Church.

And yet, what made all of that possible was the fact that the disciples first gathered together. Jesus, their teacher and friend, was gone. Unsure what to do, they only knew to do what they had done with Jesus: they came together. They prayed. They sang. And…they ate.

Around the table, that first generation of Jesus’ followers broke bread and shared cup together. And when they did, they found themselves connected across time and space with an infinite number of tables, all different shapes and sizes, that look back and forward at the same time.

As do we.

At the table, we look back to that moment in the upper room when Jesus broke bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me.” We look back to that moment when Jesus took the cup, poured it, and said, “This is the cup of the new covenant, sealed with my blood, shed for you and for many. Do this in remembrance of me.”

At the same time, we look forward with expectation to that heavenly banquet, that moment where all of God’s beloved, former enemies and friends alike, gather in God’s presence and feast together.

And, above all, we are in this moment, now, because God is here! In this sacred space at this sacred time, Jesus is in our midst. After all, this is not our table. It is his. And when we break the bread and share the cup, we are somehow, by the grace of God and God alone, opened to God’s Holy Spirit moving us, shaping us, inviting us to be who it is that God has created us to be!

Amen.

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neanderthal-national-geo_front-300x199We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

Our lesson this morning, coming from the end of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is a curious one. The community to whom he writes is one about whom he clearly has mixed feelings. It is a church he had a strong hand in starting, having spent three years living and teaching among the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.

His letters are a collection of responses back to them, mostly fueled by reports he hears emanating from the community. In a lot of cases, the reports are of conflict and questioning. Paul writes to them about dietary laws, schisms, baptism, and communion, among other critical issues. Our text addresses questions around, of all things, resurrection.

Since we only have the letters Paul authored and not those he received, it takes some detective work to figure out what exactly he is responding to. In this case, it seems that some are saying that there is no resurrection – in other words, that once you die, that’s it. Paul goes on to say, in quite pointed fashion, that if there is no resurrection, then Christ experienced no resurrection. And if that’s the case, then the only thing faith is good for is the life we live, which Paul says is “futile”, “in vain”, “pointless”. In other words, without resurrection, without the promise of life beyond what we know, the whole faithful enterprise collapses on its own weight.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

When this congregation was founded in 1949, no one could have anticipated what the world would look like in 2016. Those who helped buy this property and build these buildings did so because they knew that this community at the end of the trolley line needed a Presbyterian church. What worship would look like, what leadership would look like, what ministry needs would look like, what technology would look like…none of that would have been on their radar. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess that they did not spend a whole lot of time worrying about that, either. They were focused on being faithful to what God was calling them to be.

It was a couple of years ago that we had a worship series focused on the history of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And the thing that kept arising, again and again, was that the key moments in our collective history were those where the church did its level best to be faithful disciples of Christ in that particular moment. As our vision and mission statement says, “Ours is a story that belongs to God.” And that is where we are expected to root ourselves.

If incarnation has any hold, if Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then that means that God is just as much at work now as God was 67 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 2000 years ago, 14 billion years ago. And if the same is true looking back, then the same is true looking forward.

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This past Christmas, our family gift was participating in the National Geographic genographic project. The results of our DNA sample came back this week, and we’ve been spending time looking at the results. And in doing so, we were reminded of the incredible sweep of human history.

About 350,000 years ago, the ancestor to our species centered around sub-Saharan Africa, with a branch migrating northwest into West Asia and Europe. These were the Neanderthals. By about 130,000 years ago, our African ancestors were identifiable as Homo sapiens. 60,000 years ago, some of those humans moved north and on into Eurasia, encountering the Neanderthals, where they mated with them and absorbed them into humanity.

The results also go on to identify the various ethnic groups with whom we share DNA, as they also share the incredible story of human migration over time, one that has only become accelerated with the advent of technology. For me, in looking over this research, there is a deep sense of awe. It is one of the ways that I touch holiness, staring into that wonderful abyss of time, recognizing how little we understand of it all. It reminds of how we are, all of us, interconnected, no matter how different we might look, or no matter what those who try to divide us might suggest. For those of us with European or Asian ancestry, or indigenous American roots, we can trace our lineage back across thousands of years of roots in Africa and the Middle East!

That same holy sense of awe I get looking back is also there when I look forward – although, admittedly, with a touch of anxiety. Not knowing what is to come can be fearful, because we are not in control. And here is what faith says to that:

We do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

This is something critical for us to remember during this awful political season. God is God…no matter what! And it is particularly critical for us as people of faith, and as disciples of Jesus, as those who live within the hope of resurrection.

There are those who would try to domesticate Jesus, to box him in to fit their own agendas – political, economic, theological, national – but Jesus, as that incarnate embodiment of God, is a slippery figure. You can’t trap him or mold him into your own likeness!

This is important for us to note as we read Paul’s words today. This text, along with some others, is one that has given shape to notions of the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, Judgment Day, whatever title you want to give it. Paul writes that we will be instantly changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet, when the dead are raised.

Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of two people in a field, one taken and one left. And in Revelation, John writes of the seven seals and the seven angels and the seven plagues. There are other odd descriptions from the prophecy of Daniel and elsewhere. Some have used these texts to cobble together a detailed description of what the last days will be like. Such is the popularity of this practice that it even brought Kirk Cameron and Nicolas Cage together.

But here’s the thing: we do not know who holds the future…we know who holds the future.

You see, all of this talk about the Rapture is a pretty new phenomenon. It wasn’t until American Protestantism arose, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, that this idea of people being plucked out of thin air became popularized, and it really only gaining traction with the publication of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. As you probably notice, there’s a whole lot of church history before then – shoot: even the Beatles predate that.

Besides which, none of that was Paul’s point. The point, instead, is that the future will not be like we expect. And that is good news – indeed, the best news of all. Because it is not in our hands! It is God who holds the future. Thanks be to God!

We live and serve as those through whom God works to bring that future into being, people of the resurrection, of the hope it promises, of the mystery and awe that it brings. Let us live as though it is true.

Amen.

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The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our two lessons this morning remind us of some critical shifts in the early days of Christianity. At first, Christians were primarily Jews who saw Jesus as a Messianic figure. They worshiped in the synagogues, followed Hebrew dietary laws, and celebrated the Jewish feasts. When Jews were persecuted, Christians were, too.

Then along comes Paul.

Paul first appears as Saul, a fierce persecutor of these followers of Jesus. He oversees the public lynching of Stephen, he of strong leonine faith, who is often called the first Christian martyr. When Saul is on the way to do more of the same in Damascus, he has an otherworldly conversion experience, a blinding encounter with Jesus himself. And in that moment, Saul becomes Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul’s new mission is one of preaching. He takes that same fierceness with him as he brings the message of Jesus far beyond the Jewish community. The letters attributed to him make up the bulk of the New Testament, and his writings are critical in establishing Christianity as its own faith, distinct from Judaism, one in which people of different tribes were meant to be together in community.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Paul’s mission pointed back to Jesus’ own ministry, calling attention to the fact that his own message was quite broad. In Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, as he reads Isaiah’s words about God’s liberating power, the two stories of the Hebrew Bible he uses to illustrate his point are both ones in which prophets are sent to Gentiles, not Israelites. And Jesus regularly violated strict Sabbath observance in order to make a larger point about God’s limitless power.

With God’s urging, Paul took these moments and ran with them. The gospel, with Paul as its instrument, was not meant to divide, but to unite – to heal, to reconcile, to reach far beyond boundaries.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our lesson this morning finds Paul on the road again, heading from Athens and arriving in Corinth, about fifty miles to the west. The Romans had rebuilt Corinth as a major trading hub where Romans, Jews, and Greeks all mixed together. After he arrives, Paul connects with Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been kicked out of Rome. The three find common ground over their shared trade of tent-making. And Paul gets a place to stay while he puts his powers of persuasion to work in the synagogue, bringing the message of Christ.

Paul’s efforts there are critical in establishing the Church in Corinth. Though Paul eventually left to continue his ministry elsewhere, his authority loomed large enough in the community that they still regularly sought his wisdom. And he thinks of enough of them to reply in depth to the questions and struggles of faith that they have.

Much of Paul’s letters to the Corinth address the divisions that mark them – and there were plenty, apparently. There were conflicts over whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. There were conflicts over what role the Lord’s Supper was to have in their gatherings. There were conflicts that arose because of the cultural stew that the city of Corinth reflected, and Paul tackles them head on, over and over again.

The second part of our lesson highlights one of these divisive moments. Chloe, a leader in the Corinthian church, has sent word to Paul that factions are forming. Paul blasts them for these arguments. It is not, he says, about whether you “belong to Paul” or “Cephas” or “Apollos”. Christ, he says, is not divided. And if Christ is not divided, Christ’s church should not be, either. Paul reminds them that it is Christ who was crucified, not Paul. It was in the name of Christ that they were baptized.

He has this stumbling little tangent, too, which I love – a reminder that Paul didn’t really have the time or the resources for editing. He writes: “I only baptized Crispus and Gaius. And no one else. Except for Stephanas. And his household. Actually, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else. We did do the nose. And the hat. But that’s not the point! You were baptized into Christ, and into the message of the cross and its power. That should be what unites you!”

And Paul’s message was so effective that the church was never divided again.

If anything, the church seems to be marked by division: division between Orthodox and Catholic, division between Catholic and Protestant, division between Presbyterian and Lutheran, division between evangelical and traditional, division between conservative and progressive…So let us be absolutely crystal clear about this: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ!

This is the message that ought to ring home for us today – not just today, but especially today. Later on in the service, we will baptize little Norah, and we will welcome her parents, Adam and Victoria, into membership, as we also officially welcome the Kim family into the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Each and every time we baptize and welcome members, we should be reminded of this fact: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ. And it is in Christ that we should find our life, our meaning, our purpose.

Even the word “church” ought to remind us of this focus. “Church” is an old, old English word that comes from Greek by way of German. And in Greek, it owes its root to the word Kyrios – that is the Lord, or Christ himself.

The problem comes when we confuse life in a church with life in the church, with life in Christ. We can easily get caught up in institutional survival, or denominational division, or even political disagreement, such that we fail to recognize what our calling actually is.

This is the challenge that confronts us every time we talk about church membership. If we fail to make it clear, we can be led to believe that membership means some kind of exclusive access to God that sets us apart from the world. And this is what leads into division, reinforcing the very separation and conflict that Paul was trying to discourage.

What membership should mean is this: it is a public commitment to be part of a community that is in an ongoing relationship with Jesus. And in that relationship, we try to reflect that the character of Jesus we meet out into the world.

I am not saying that there is nothing at stake in church membership. Quite the opposite: church membership is one clear way to demonstrate that we believe in something larger than ourselves, and that we are willing to be part of a shared vision, one we shape just as it shapes us.

And yet, joining Oglethorpe Presbyterian does not mean cutting yourself off from the world. We do not have some kind of inner road to truth that other congregations or denominations or religions lack. We are, simply put, a community of people doing our best to be part of what it is that God desires in this little corner of God’s amazing world. And this work does not end when we leave the property; in fact, it is just beginning, spreading out through all space and time!

Wherever we go, our goal should be to create little glimpses of grace – moments that point not to ourselves, or to Brookhaven, or to Oglethorpe, or to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or to Paul or Cephas or Apollos. They should, instead, be windows onto to the God whom we are coming to know more in Jesus each and every day!

Immediately following worship today, our Mission leadership is going to be hosting a Town Hall forum on some of the opportunities we believe God has led us to prioritize, ways of being this church that belongs to Jesus far beyond the walls of our buildings and the lines of our property. Some of these ministries have a long history here, and some are brand new. And each of them, we believe, are visible reminders of God at work in this broken and beloved world.

This is the church into which we are baptized – a church that does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel and its healing, reconciling power, with its words of compassion, words of peace for us, and for all. May we have the wisdom and the faith to embrace its claim upon us!

Amen.

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Leather covered bible lying on a tableHow are you a part of God’s story today?

There are several things that we are required to do in a worship service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prayer is one – it can be spoken or sung, but we must pray. Preaching is another. It can be spoken or performed, but there must be some kind of interpretation of God’s word for God’s people. Offerings are also required, oddly enough. That’s not because of the pragmatic need to pay the light bill. The category of “offering” is much broader than just the money we give. Instead, our weekly “offering” is a reminder to offer ourselves to God continually. And, in order to worship, we must read from the Bible.

It’s important to remember why it is that we read from the Bible. We do so not because we worship the Bible. After all, God alone is worthy of worship. We read from the Bible, from Scripture, because it points us toward God. The Bible is not the only book in which we can find meaning. After all, there are valuable lessons in fairy tales and ancient mythologies. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling can teach and move us. But what we believe about the Bible is that it is, in its own unique way, God’s own word. It is not merely a historical curiosity. It is the story of God’s love for God’s creation, and as such, its wisdom is one from which we continue to draw meaning for our lives.

So: how are you a part of God’s story today?

This is the question I want to lift up this morning. And I want to do so by triangulating it with three other questions.

People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they are full of joy and want that joy magnified. Others come because they are hopeless and want to know that God hasn’t given up on us yet. Some come because they are angry…or anxious…or afraid…or looking for direction. Others are looking for confirmation for what they already know. Some are auditioning a new church, looking for a more permanent sense of community, trying on a church to see if it fits. And others come because it’s the rhythm of their week: without worship, it isn’t Sunday.

Whatever your reason for coming, here is the first question I want you to answer:

What is it that you need to hear today?

This question is one way to enter the lesson. Do you need a word of hope? Challenge? Comfort? Wisdom? Surprise? Purpose? Reassurance? Direction? Forgiveness? Before we dive into our lesson from the Book of Acts, I invite you to take a moment right now. Anchor yourself in this place at this time and let your answer rise to the top: what is it that you need to hear today?

In our lesson today, the disciples have left the nest. They have overcome the shock of the risen and ascended Christ, regrouping and moving forward. The eleven have replaced Judas the betrayer, becoming the twelve again. Pentecost has multiplied them into the thousands. And now, they are spreading their wings and taking flight.

Peter and John are the first ones out of the gate. Going up to the Temple for daily prayer, they encounter a man begging for his livelihood. We learn that he was born with a disability, meaning that reliance on the kindness of others was his primary means of earning a living.

Peter and John, rather than turning their heads like the bulk of the crowds, or tossing a coin as some might do, stop and speak to him. Peter comes right out and tells him: we are broke. We can’t give you any money. But what we can give you is far more powerful: healing. The man leaps to his feat. As he heads into the Temple, his very presence usurps the sacrifices and prayers of the altar. He is the surest sign of God’s power in evidence that day.

Who do you identify with? Is it Peter and John, the disciples who represent the early church? Is it the beggar, the one who is tolerated but not embraced? Or is it the crowds, spectators to it all?

This, too, is a good way to enter the lesson. My hunch is that if you are feeling empowered, you are more likely to see yourself in Peter or John. If you are feeling beaten down, you might look to the one who is miraculously healed. And if you are unsure of what this lesson might teach, you could see yourself in the unnamed crowds, sitting back and watching it all take place, unsure where to jump in and take part.

So let’s introduce a second question alongside our first:

Who are you in this story?

Take another moment. Which character resonates with you? Inhabit that character. Hold that character alongside your first answer, reminding yourself what you have come here needing to hear this morning.

Peter is the compulsive one, the disciple who rushes into the water to walk alongside Jesus, only to sink beneath the waves. He’s the one who identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, but then tries to turn Jesus away from the cross. He defends Jesus’ life in the Garden, but then denies ever having known him a few hours later. Peter is the rock. And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter takes over the reigns of leadership, doing so with a great deal more maturity than he had exhibited up to that point.

John is also known as the “beloved disciple”. He’s the one in whom Jesus confides. Along with Peter and James, John is part of Jesus’ inner circle. From the cross, Jesus urges John to take Mary into his home as though she were his own mother. John never utters a word in our story – and yet, his presence is important and powerful. In modern terms, John is the introvert to Peter’s extrovert.

Then there’s the man who is healed. Unnamed, he serves as a living parable of God’s mercy. He is a fixture, the man who begs daily by the Beautiful Gate. He has known nothing but brokenness his whole life. This brokenness, while it makes him vulnerable, also makes him virtually invisible. Ignored. In his healing, he takes center stage, a witness to Jesus, himself an embodiment of the power of resurrection.

And let’s not forget the crowds, the Bible’s version of the Greek chorus. The nameless, faceless crowds are the ones who pursue Jesus throughout the Galilee. They parade him into Jerusalem, pronouncing him the Messiah, the Son of David; and within a week, they proclaim their allegiance to Caesar, calling for Jesus’ death. They are the same ones who swarm the streets on Pentecost, their lives changed at a moment’s notice. And here they are again, marveling at the transformation that has taken place. Of course, it is not long before they are back to their old ways, part of the movement to oppress the early church.

Who are you in the story? And how does that connect with what it is you need to hear?

And before we get too far down the road, let’s add our third question:

What is it that God needs you to hear today?

We come here with our hopes and desires. And God always, always meets us where we are. And yet, that doesn’t mean that we stay there. No one in our lesson today leaves it the way they entered it. Each one experiences transformation – each one in just the way they needed it, too.

The man who receives healing is the clearest example of this transforming power of God. As the story begins, it is just another day for him. He has made it to his usual spot, along the roadside, waiting for the Temple pilgrims to come by so that he might survive from their gleanings. As Peter and John arrive, he looks to them for alms. And when they respond, he expects they will come through in some small way.

And when Peter first begins to speak, we can imagine the man’s disappointment: “I have no silver or gold.”

I can almost imagine him thinking, “Unless your next words are going to be, ‘but here’s a sandwich’, then just keep on moving.” Instead, Peter offers him the one thing he has truly been seeking his entire life: wholeness.

Think about that: this man’s whole life has been one of waiting, of a routine marked by helplessness and vulnerability. And now, in the blink of an eye, he receives not only the ability to walk for the first time. He is given the gift of an unknown future, full of possibility and imaginings!

So what about you? How are you a part of God’s story today?

Are you among the crowds – watching from the sidelines, eager to react, but not to jump in? If so, will you take that chance today? Will you not just keep on watching, but to join Peter and John and the other disciples, living in the footsteps of Christ?

Are you Peter, holding onto some precious gift that, if you were bold enough to release it, would change someone’s life forever? If so, will you do it? Will you open your hands and your heart in order that the world might look just a little bit more like the way God desires it to be?

Are you John, not taking the lead necessarily, but being that steady, loving, quiet presence that nonetheless communicates volumes about the healing and encouraging power of God? If so, will you lend your strength? Will you give that gift of reassurance and encouragement to someone who truly needs it?

Are you the broken man made whole, coming here out of habit or routine, not expecting much to change, and yet open to the possibility that, once you leave here, life will never be the same? If so, will you embody that resurrection? Will you leave here today not just a little more whole than when you arrived, but dancing in your heart for all the world to see?

How are you part of God’s story – not just today, but from now on?

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