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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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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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In Memoriam

An excerpt from a memorial reflection for Johnnie Drummond (1916-2008).

It was in the 1970s when she was widowed that Johnnie decided that she wanted to take art classes. She had no inkling that she might have any talent, just a desire to learn to paint. If you haven’t already seen the paintings that are in the narthex, I invite you to take a look following the service. She had quite a gift that had been buried all those years, just waiting to be unearthed.

And perhaps there’s the lesson for us, that we’re never too old to learn something new. Or maybe it’s that no matter how many years we might live, we’ll never see the fullness of all that God has given us.

 

There’s one painting in particular: a still life with a hurricane globe, a candle’s gentle flame protected inside. The marble surface on which they stand reflect the light of that flame. It is my conviction that we are never closer to God than when we tap into our artistic gifts. God’s core nature is as one who creates; when we create, we offer up that part of us that bears that imprint of God’s touch on our lives. Or, as that painting creation of Johnnie’s might hint, at our best, we are like that marble table, reflecting the light of Christ that always shines on our lives. And in doing so, we invite others into that wondrous glow that banishes the darkness.

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