One Church, One God, One Hour
Our faith teaches us that amazing things happen in graveyards. No, this is not a Halloween-themed sermon, though I’m sure that walking through the aisles at CVS has made its impact. Rather, the simple point is that resurrection stands at the heart of all we do. It’s the obvious dramatic conclusion to the Easter story, where a tomb stands empty and a stone has been rolled away. And it’s also there in the lesson from 1 Corinthians, where the body of Christ has been resurrected into the life of the church. So here’s the question for us today: do we believe in resurrection in our own lives? Do we know that life – new life – can come out of death?
The early 1960s were a great time for new churches. The Atlanta Presbytery took notice of growing trends in certain towns and neighborhoods, planting new churches as the growth of Atlanta began its crawl and sprawl outwards. One such example took place in 1962, as the Presbytery launched plans for Providence Presbyterian Church in Chamblee. In 1964, we hosted the ordination service for their first pastor, and within a couple of months, some of Oglethorpe’s members transferred to the new church, as it was much closer to their home.
As I looked through our historical records, I noticed a number of times that Providence and Oglethorpe collaborated on various projects together. If there was any competition, it was not obvious; instead, it looked like the two churches participated as partners, siblings in faith, two members of the same body. This kinship proved to be very important in the years to come.
It goes without saying that the 1960s were a very different time. Now, the reality for churches, whether Presbyterian or otherwise, is very different. In the United States, 4000 new churches start every year. And in that same time period, 7000 churches close. Rather than expansion, the reality for American churches is compression. Or to put it more starkly: there seems to be more death than life.
In the 1990s, Providence Presbyterian became a casualty of this trend. There were a number of factors involved, and those of you who know the church well are better equipped to describe it than I. By 1993, we began to see members of Providence transfer to Oglethorpe; and by 1994, Providence Presbyterian had closed. I have talked to many of you who were involved at Providence, and you have told me what a painful process that was to go through. You also shared with me what it meant to be welcomed here at Oglethorpe.
Some of that was made easier by the fact that Oglethorpe’s pastor at the time, Rod Stone, had pastored Providence. The partnerships and shared projects meant that you already knew people here, and you knew that their values of service and community were closely aligned with your own. I give a lot of credit to the Oglethorpe congregation for making room, but I also give a lot of credit to the former members of Providence for taking a chance, not giving up on Church, and coming here to heal and grow.
Our faith teaches us that amazing things happen in graveyards.
While life of the congregation of Providence came to an end, the story of that place was just beginning. A Korean Presbyterian congregation moved in, and several years after the transfer, the members of Providence were invited back for a celebratory luncheon, a chance for the membership of Korean Central Presbyterian Church to express their gratitude and thanks for a chance of giving and serving in that place. And that’s what you’ll see if you drive down Chamblee-Dunwoody Road today: a thriving Korean Presbyterian church. That never would have been possible if Providence hadn’t been willing to risk death so that new life, resurrection, could take root.
I would also say that the same is true here. This Fall, we have been talking a lot about our own history as a congregation, picking up on the characteristics and the trends that we see in the past that give us some indication of what lies ahead for us. The truth, of course, is that this look back does not limit itself to those who have always been inside these walls, because every single one of us has been shaped by life outside – whether by life experience or by that of another church with its own character and flavor.
Pastors know that merging churches is a tricky business. It is often obvious, for many years to come, which members came from which church. Dividing lines are clear, and cliques remain. While Providence did not merge with Oglethorpe, the same is true when one church absorbs another. That said, it is a testament to all of you that it took me several years to figure out who was a former member of Providence, and only because you told me so. There are too many of you to name, but suffice it to say that our mission work, our choir, so many areas of our church could not be what it is today without the dedication, the participation, the life that Providence breathed into Oglethorpe. In faith, life springs forth from death.
What about you? Where is it that you have experienced death in your own life recently? Where have you experienced loss? Is it literal death? Or perhaps the end of an era? The loss of a job? A relationship? Is it a physical loss of some kind?
I offer up my own. With the years that have past, it feels a bit frivolous now; but at the time, I was sure the rug had been pulled out from under me.
When I was a freshman in college, I was going to be an engineer. I had been a mathlete in high school, taking classes way out of my grade. My family business had been construction. The academic and professional path was clear. Until first semester. I was taking Linear Algebra, a class I had actually taken in high school already, so I figured it would be a straightforward entry into math and science.
That is, until I got a 37 on my midterm. Out of 100. Four questions, one right, one half-right. I met with the professor to appeal for a higher grade. He said, “OK: show me how you ended up with the answers you did.” I took to the chalk board, showed my work, and sat down. He paused a moment, and then offered, “A 37 seems about right.”
I dropped the class, swore off math and science for a couple of semesters, and took my adviser’s recommendation to heart: at the end of your sophomore year, see which classes you’ve taken the most of. That’s your major. In a nutshell, that’s what led me to study history, and then on to study theology. And now you know the rest of the story.
Like I said, it wasn’t the most earth-shattering loss. But at the time, it felt like a little death. So I’m not going to mince words with you: death hurts. It is difficult, painful, agonizing. That said, death is never the end. Death never gets the last word. That’s why spring always follows winter, why seeds disappear and plants emerge. That’s why crosses stand empty and tombs stand vacant. There is always resurrection. There is always new life. It is not always easy to see, but what faith shows us is that it is always there.
An example to close, and then I’m done.
In 1995, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents met together to form the Parents Circle. Every member had experienced the loss of a child through the all-consuming violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than seek redress through revenge our violence, though, these parents have decided that their grief needed to be the seed to give dialogue, tolerance, peace, and reconciliation. For these parents, the only way that their loss can make sense is if it gives life to the desire that no one, whether enemy or compatriot, would ever experience such loss again. Death gives way to hope, to possibility, to peace.
And that’s the truth of faith, about miracles in graveyards, about life from death, about life within the miraculous body of Christ: we are not alone, not by any stretch! Not only does life spring forth again and again and again, we are offered that hope by our membership in Christ’s own body. We may not have the eyes to see it, but we are not all eyes. We may not have the ears to hear it, but we are not all ears. We may not even have the heart to believe it, but we are not all hearts. We are knit together, believing and trusting together, so that we might be shown a more excellent way!