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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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“…we pray that our present actions will honor those who have come before us 
and bless those who come after us…”

These words have been part of the prayer that has guided our capital campaign from the beginning. They say so eloquently in a few words our hopes and desires for all that we do as a church.

If you have entered the building through the lobby any time in the past month, you have seen the photos culled from our archives that mark the historic passage of time. From the groundbreaking ceremony of 1950 through various phases of construction to the 50th anniversary celebrations and beyond, there is a whole lot of OPC that has come before us. And indeed, part of what we do in this campaign is to honor all of that. In order to ensure that there would be not just a building, but a community of faith, here at the corner of Woodrow and Lanier, those who have come before us made sacrifices, financial and otherwise. And without them, it is safe to say that we would not be here today.

And here we are! We have embarked on an ambitious capital campaign totaling more than half a million dollars. Item number one, the roof, is already scheduled to start this week, weather permitting. The rest of it, whether it’s deferred maintenance or improvement, programming or physical plant, is up to us and what we are ready to commit in this present moment.

As you contemplate what it is that you can give to our campaign, please remember that we are asking you not to reduce your annual giving. As we minister in 2012, our annual giving is what makes it possible for the church to operate from day to day. Think of it this way: your annual stewardship gift is for the church that is; your campaign gift is for the church that will be.

In the next week, you will be receiving a brochure with more information about the campaign. You will also be hearing from our campaign ambassadors who will simply contact you to make sure you have received the information. And in two weeks, on December 9, we are asking each of you to make a three-year financial commitment to this campaign.

The request is to consider making a three-year commitment of 3-5% of annual income, or 3-5% of accumulated assets, depending on your situation. And more importantly, we ask you to make your commitment prayerfully. If you haven’t already, take one of the prayer cards in the pew in front of you home, that it may be part of what guides your decision-making.

And that’s the question: what is it that guides your decision-making?

Some of you have heard my own story of how financial giving plays into our family life. I was raised in a faithful church family that did not talk about money or giving. The only modeling I remember was that of my grandfather, who would quietly hand me a dollar bill each Sunday so that I could put something in the collection plate. There was no adjusting for inflation, no understanding that the gift would come out of my allowance. One dollar in 1973 was still one dollar in 1993.

Fast-forward to seminary, where I had no classes on stewardship. Instead, my lesson was to come through relationship. My soon-to-be mother-in-law, a faithful woman who has lived hand-to-mouth as long as I’ve known her, made a regular practice of tithing. She would calculate 10% of her income, pre-tax, and give it to the church. Period. What she has discovered through the years is that there is always enough.

Elizabeth and I began doing the same. As a household with the income of two graduate students, we were not making a huge impact on our church’s budget. But if we ever questioned the wisdom of the tithe, those questions were soon to be eclipsed.

We had been married for a year and a half when Elizabeth was rushed to the hospital, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Within a week, she had been admitted for surgery to remove a “mass” from her brain stem. The surgery was successful, the tumor was benign, and she experienced none of the possible side effects that a brain stem surgery might bring about. We were floating on grace.

And then the medical bills arrived.

I had just graduated from seminary and, coincidentally, out of a spectacular health insurance plan. While we worked part-time jobs, we jumped into Elizabeth’s graduate school insurance with its generous major medical cap of $10,000. The surgery and hospitalization bills came to a total of $70,000.

We began working our way through the hospital billing system, applying for state and federal aid for which we did not qualify. The hospital asked for a thorough accounting of our assets, and stifling a few laughs, I imagine, they put us on a payment plan which would cost us $5,000 in two years. The rest of our hospital debt would be forgiven.

That took care of about half of the bill. The other half was the individual responsibility of each doctor. To them, we were encouraged to write “dear doctor” letters, explaining our situation, and asking for clemency. To our shock, all but one of the doctors agreed to our request, including the surgeon. In the blink of an eye, more than $60,000 in debt was eliminated.

At that point, the whole question of giving seemed superficial. God could not have provided us with a more coherent parable of the meaning of tithing: in our hour of need, we were taken care of not only physically and emotionally, but financially as well. How could we hold back from sharing our good fortune?

This has been the financial foundation that we have lived with ever since. Our pledge every year is based on tithing 10% of our anticipated income. It is the first check we write every month. The meaning of this commitment is something that we are working to pass on to our own children. And as we have contemplated how we will give to this capital campaign, it is these life lessons we have kept in mind.

What about you? What is it that you have learned about the way money works? Is God a part of those life lessons at all? Is it possible that you missed something right before your nose?

You see, it took me almost forty years to realize what I missed in those early days of sitting in the pew with my grandfather: what I had to put in the plate was never mine to begin with. It was a gift. As short-lived and small as it might have been, it could only stay a gift if I was willing to give it away. Is there a better way to describe the blessings that God has given us?

So what about you? How is it that your gift can not only honor those who have come before us and bless those who will come after us, but can also be part of that blessing and honor and glory and power that the angels sing constantly in the presence of God? What is it that could be your sacrifice? Maybe skipping that cup of Starbucks in the morning, or limiting the number of meals you eat out each week? Or perhaps as you contemplate gift-giving this Christmas season, how about taking a page out of our Alternative Gift Market? Do you really need more “stuff”? Or might you contemplate asking family members to give their gift to your church instead?

Whatever your decision, know this: we, too, will be counted among those who have “come before”. There will be those who are grateful for the many, many gifts that this church has given them. Like many of you, I know that there is a desperate need for a church like OPC in this world; and it is ours to make that possible for those who come after.

In short, God has blessed and honored us so richly! May we do the same.

Amen.

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God of the past.

Some of you have heard the story of when I was in seminary, working on my master’s thesis, Elizabeth and I spent our Spring Break in Montreat, North Carolina. This would have been 1996. My research had ended up focusing on a retired Presbyterian pastor named Randy Taylor, and he had welcomed me to troll through his personal archives. Mrs. Taylor invited us in, letting me know that Randy was in the kitchen.

Dr. Taylor was having a cup of coffee with a friend, who introduced himself as Fitz Legerton. We exchanged greetings, asked about where we came from and so on; when he found out I was from Atlanta, he said, “I used to live in Atlanta. I was pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for forty-one years.” And the thought that ran through my head, no lie, was, “Boy, I sure feel sorry for the guy that follows him!”

Flash forward to 2005. Elizabeth and I were working in Louisville, Kentucky, after four years in mission service overseas. I was looking for a position with a church. With family in Atlanta, and knowing that we would soon start our own, we focused on churches here. As I searched the profiles of congregations looking for a pastor, one name bubbled up to the top: Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Something struck me and encouraged me to submit my name.

I felt a strange kinship that grew with time. One of my personal references, Fahed Abu-Akel, was also one of the church’s references. One of the former pastors, Richard Floyd, and I had overlapped at seminary in Chicago for one year. The interim pastor, Joel Alvis, had authored a book I had read and referenced in my master’s thesis. I learned all of this before I ever met with the committee. And when we did meet, I fell in love immediately. We met on a Saturday, I preached on Sunday at a “neutral pulpit” nearby, and got a call on our drive back to Louisville. I immediately said “yes”.

God of the past.

It is relatively easy to see God at work when we look backwards. Some of that has to do with the fact that we most often learn of God in Christ in Scripture, through stories and lessons that took place in the past. And these events were put into written form with the benefit of hindsight, when the authors’ ability to see God’s presence became clearer. I think most of us are much better at looking back than looking around.

Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has been here for more than sixty years. If you haven’t seen them already, there are some fantastic photos up in the lobby that share some of that journey. In the earliest days, Sally Weltner, wife of Oglethorpe University’s president at the time, insisted that there be a Presbyterian church here way out in Brookhaven. Responding to that desire, Peachtree Presbyterian sent a seminarian named Albert Wells to investigate. In 1949, the new congregation was chartered, called their first pastor, Fitz Legerton, and broke ground for their building within a year.

All of these are important moments in the memories of our community. And note them not only because they remind us of the amazing folks who have come before us; they also serve as concrete reminders of what has always been at the heart of OPC: worshiping God and serving Christ.

God of the past; God of the present.

That’s the turn right there. We can look back and see how God has used OPC to do amazing things: just to name a few, to establish Atlanta Ministry with International Students and the Food Pantry, now housed at the Suthers’ Center. But can we look around and see God at work in the here and now?

It is obvious that the world is a very different place how than it was in 1949. And the role of the church is very different as well. If we can be honest with each other, we face incredible challenges. Our numbers are far fewer than they were fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten years ago. In the seven years I have been here, we have welcomed a lot of new members, but have bid farewell to just as many. I have officiated over ten times as many funerals as baptisms. Sunday mornings are no longer the church’s exclusive domain. And we are not unique in these challenges, not by any stretch. Churches have always faced challenges; and these are ours in the present.

And yet, there is something vitally important about what this community means now, what it represents to those of us who have chosen to make this place our home for worship and service.

I have heard you talk about what this church, this community, means to you. You have visited other churches, but this was the only one where you felt welcome. You come here to be comforted and loved, but you are also grateful to be stretched and challenged about the things of faith.

I have learned to put it this way: OPC is a church that is in Brookhaven, but not of it. We are here, and we are committed to serving and ministering to our community; and yet, we also know that our society’s priorities of “bigger, better, faster, stronger” are misplaced and misguided. We know that there is more to life; and we are eager to learn together what that thing is.

There are churches out there that are happy to “baptize” the status quo, to confirm as holy all of the things that people are already sure that they know. But what I hear and know from you all is that this church is different. Questions are not only OK, they are important. Generations are not meant to be sequestered from each other, but to learn from each other and love each other. And faith is not a one-way street; it is a relationship with the divine, a vital, moving reality that demands not that we take it for granted, but that we take it seriously and joyfully!

That’s what I hear you saying, and when I look around, that’s what I see. And when I look into the past and see how God was at work in my life to bring me here, I am more and more grateful for this present moment and the future that lies beyond.

God of the past; God of the present; God of the future.

What do we really know about what’s coming? Concretely, nothing; except that it will be unlike anything we might imagine. The pace of change is breathtaking; it can be overwhelming at times. I am old enough to remember when the purpose of a telephone was to call people. Period. Now, they are capable of processing more information than the recent Mars rover. Who knows what lies ahead?

But that’s not the point; the lessons of Scripture are drawn from the past, but more than anything else, they suggest the way forward. Our Jeremiah text, the one that is the anchor for our capital campaign, says it this way: “I know the plans I have for you,” says God, “to give you a future filled with hope!” And Revelation goes on to expand that thought: “the home of God is among us…God is making all things new!”

Friends, I am convinced that what lies ahead for OPC is a future filled with hope. As much as God was with us in 1949, and as much as God is with us in 2012, God will be with us in the years to come! There will always be a place for a church that knows that there is more to life than meets the eye.

God has been here; God is here now; and God will always be here. Our role remains to trust in that truth, to act in the confidence and hope that it brings. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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