God of the Past, Present, and Future
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!