Risen in Word

We are connected. One of the words that is often used to describe Presbyterians is “connectional”. It’s a helpful way of explaining our system of churches. Each congregation, like Oglethorpe Presbyterian, is independent enough to allow for creativity and flexibility. Most of the decisions we make as a church are done by those whom we elect into leadership. We call them elders. At the same time, we are also in partnership with other Presbyterian churches – by last count, about 100 in the Atlanta area and about 10,000 nationwide. And it is these connections which are crucial to my mind: they provide systems of both support and accountability.

When we struggle, we do not struggle alone. Instead, we have access to resources locally and nationally that can provide guidance, prayer, and support. And we are also nested in a system of checks and balances that makes sure we don’t go off the rails. In 2014, I don’t need to tell you how important that is. Too many churches and pastors, left to their own devices, have betrayed the sacred trust of the gospel.

We are connected.

That’s the message that lies at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples that we read in our lesson from John. That text is part of a long conversation that takes place during the Last Supper. Jesus speaks somewhat cryptically, talking about how he is in the Father and the Father is in him, which points to this idea of connection, that Jesus and God are intimately related. That’s hard enough to get our minds around. But Jesus goes on: “Whoever believes in me will do greater works than mine.”

Did you catch that? Philip demands to see God as proof of all of this talk, and Jesus replies by telling him that seeing what Jesus has done is all the evidence he needs. His teaching, his healing, that whole “water into wine” thing, that was all God at work in Jesus. But apparently, that was all peanuts compared to what those who believe in Jesus will be capable of, because Jesus will be at work in them.

Those who believe in Jesus will do things that eclipse Jesus himself? I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty hard to swallow…

It all seems to go back to this connection thing. God is at work in Jesus, Jesus will be at work in the disciples, and one down through the generations. And that brings us up to today.

We are connected.

Today, we do one of my absolute favorite Presbyterian things, and that is ordination and installation of elders and deacons. “Elders” is the title we give to those whom we elect into leadership. They include the pastor and members of the church. “Deacons” is the title we give to those whom we elect into ministries of care and compassion. And when we ordain folks and install them to these offices, we are living out an example of correction.

I remember the day of my ordination to ministry, which happened 14 years ago in Chicago. As I kneeled, the elders of First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette stood around me and placed their hands on my shoulders. My mother was in that elder “scrum” too. When my mother knelt for ordination at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, elders stood around her and placed hands on her shoulders. And they had once done the same.

So when we ordain and install elders and deacons today, it is as though our circle is surrounded by ever-widening circles that go further back in time, connecting us to that ragtag bunch of disciples, sitting in an Upper Room, listening to Jesus, and being promised gifts beyond imagining. And so, what we do here today is much more than just an odd little remnant of an ancient ritual. We are resting on the belief that this same power of Jesus echoes down through the ages, from touch to touch, from shoulder to shoulder, giving us the faith and ability to speak and act and pray as though Jesus is working through us!

And here’s one more Presbyterian spin on things: we are skeptical of individuals acting on their own, claiming to speak for God. We prefer to trust the wisdom of groups. When the elders meet together as a session, we discuss thoroughly. And when the group decides, even if I don’t agree with the decision (and that does happen from time to time), I am called to trust that we have done the best we can to discern God’s desires for the moment. And that should mean a great deal to us right now.

Next Sunday will be my last Sunday with you for three months. I cannot express my gratitude to you enough for this summer Sabbatical for my family and me, for the rest and refreshment it will provide us. And I also have to say that I am grateful to the Lilly Endowment for footing the bill for us as a church! I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. The truth is, I’m pretty excited. And yet, I will miss you all. I may not miss you all right away, but I will miss you. And I will look forward to returning in September so we can share stories with each other.

But the reason that I go in confidence is because of everything we have just talked about. The pastor is one of the elders in the congregation, and in influential one at that. But I am just one of the elders. There are nine other phenomenal leaders who prayerfully deliberate the direction of our congregation month in and month out.

By now, many of you have read about our Summer Minister, L’Anni Hill. If you haven’t, please pick up a copy of the newsletter in the lobby or check it out on our website. And be sure to welcome her on Sunday, June 1. She will be preaching, teaching, caring, and leading our congregation during my absence, all of which fills me with energy and excitement for Oglethorpe Presbyterian.

God is looking out for us. Of course, if you know our staff, you know that already. What can I say about our staff? Tim, who does everything in our music program, short of juggling, but I hear we might add that to his job description, too; Cheryl, who wears, at last count, 482 hats as our Office Manager and Christian Educator (on top of which she is both an ordained elder and deacon); Francisco, who I like to call “MacGyver” for his ability to use the most unusual of materials to hold our vintage building together; the unparalleled Linda Hawthorne, my tremendously gifted pastoral care partner in crime; our Preschool team, our amazing Preschool team, where I have been blessed to be both pastor and parent…

In short, I hope you hear how well supported we are as a congregation – make that, well-connected, because undergirding all of this is not just a human connection, but a godly one.

We are connected.

One more example of connection. As we bid Bethany farewell today as our Student Pastor, I am reminded of the many seminary students who have come through our doors over the years. Think of the many congregations and ministries they are now serving and the many, many people whose lives have been touched by them. They are leading congregations, teaching in seminaries, working in hospitals…Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a living, breathing example of this connectional DNA!

Because we are…connected.