“Belonging to a Healthy Community”
Isaiah 6:1-8; Ephesians 3:14-21
Annual Report Sunday, February 10, 2019
The story of the prophet Isaiah begins in the temple, in a certain year, the year that King Uzziah died.
After ruling for 52 years, since he was 16 years old, King Uzziah died in approximately 740 bce.
His reign was for the most part a time of prosperity and relative peace, and Uzziah’s death signaled a
transition of power for Judah, and ushered in a time of uncertainty.
His death was less than a generation before the northern kingdom of Israel would fall to Syria in 722 bce.
We could spend all afternoon talking about the fascinating rises and the tragic falls
of middle eastern kings and their kingdoms, but what we want to recognize this morning is this call to
service during a time of transition.
This here-to-fore unknown prophet, Isaiah, is in the temple one day, in the year that his king has died.
We do not know if he was praying or not, or what his mindset was, but there he was, in the temple,
where, in the midst of a grand vision of the presence of Almighty God, Isaiah receives a call to speak and
to live the Word of God.
Notice that when Isaiah cries out in confession: I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people
of unclean lips, he proclaims a great theological truth: standing before Almighty God, none of us is
As the scripture proclaims: None of us are worthy, no, not even one.
Another truth revealed in this call story is that “God does not call the equipped, but equips the called.”
Isaiah, Jeremiah and a host of other prophets, both then and today, would fit the description
of being both ill-equipped and unworthy.
And yet, God calls us still to love a world sometimes hostile or indifferent to God’s Word.
Hear the Word of God: Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
When we read Isaiah’s response to this call from God in the Temple:
“Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, well, it is sort of like reading an email.
All we have is the words. We have no idea of Isaiah’s tone or the inflection of his voice.
Was Isaiah uncertain? Here I am, Lord…Is it I, Lord? I (think) I have heard you calling in the night…”
Or perhaps afraid? Here am I? Do you really want to send me? Little ol’ unworthy Isaiah?
Or was Isaiah excited? Here I am! Send me Lord!
United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera spoke here in our sanctuary Thursday evening.
His was the opening keynote for a seminary conference on immigration and border crossings.
The goal of the conference, co-sponsored by Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and
Religion, was to share intellectual insights and practical tools for how communities throughout the
country may respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities of immigration.
Herrera told stories in his keynote address, stories from the 19th century about his immigrant grandfather, stories about growing up poor as a child of migrant workers in the 20th century,
stories about diverse communities of schoolchildren from the 21st century,
stories that all communicated some sense of truth and hope.
Herrera tells the kind of stories that might help our nation begin to overcome divisions.
His stories remind us that many current ideas are old ideas and are not working anymore.
His stories that spur the imagination and allow new ideas to begin to surface.
Truth-telling and story-telling and image-sharing are important are important vehicles of hope.
Today is our Annual Report Sunday.
In this annual report, we seek to highlight not only the truth of numbers and activities,
but also to share the images of a church alive and well.
The hard truth of our numbers is that while many of our numbers are strong,
our Sunday morning attendance numbers are not what they once were.
While our membership numbers are strong, and our total participants in the various ministries is strong,
our Sunday morning Sunday School and Sunday morning worship numbers are down.
In case you have not noticed, there are less people in our pews on average than were here in prior years.
There are a number of reasons for this drop in attendance.
You have heard me speak often of how much the Protestant Church in North America is changing,
how different the 21st century is for our society and for our churches.
Some of the authors I have read lean toward being prophets of doom for the Church.
Other write as harbingers of hope, claiming that while the Church in North America is changing,
our call is to live into this great opportunity of no longer being near the center of influence and power.
This is a terrific opportunity, they claim, for deeper engagement in the ministry of Jesus Christ.
The Church in North America is not dying, they claim, but undergoing a thorough-going reformation,
a re-formation which ultimately will be fruitful for the faithfulness of 21st century Christianity.
So, these national trends are part of our truth, but not all of it.
Another part of our truth is that we held 24 memorial services here last year.
That is a record number for me. That number represents many beloved members of this church who,
just a year or two ago, were sitting in these pews or in this choir nearly every single Sunday.
(see names on page 5 of Annual Report)
There are new, often much younger, members that now sit where they once sat.
We added 32 new members last year, more members than we lost, and we baptized 17,
most of whom were children. But here’s the catch.
Whereas many of those we have buried were here nearly every week,
the younger members are not as often.
If they are here more than once a month, they are feeling pretty active.
In our Crusaders Class, just a few years ago they would have as many as sixty on a Sunday morning.
Today, there were less than twenty.
It is appropriate and even necessary to grieve over lost loved ones,
those who are no longer with us or who are no longer able to participate.
That grief is real, but we will not dwell in that grief.
Instead of looking around and asking “where is everyone?”,
let us begin to look into the eyes of those who are here and exclaim: “Look who’s here today!
I know it wasn’t easy for you to be here but I am so glad you made the effort.
It is good to see you. Weren’t you were just in the hospital last week!
You say you’ve been to physical therapy three times this week? And yet here you are.
We are so glad you are here.”
Or to the young families who tend to sit on the other side of the sanctuary
with their children who come forward for the Time with Children.
Instead of saying “where is everyone today?”
or “This must be another one of those many school breaks?”,
let us rather exclaim: “Look who’s here today! We are so glad that you are here.
We know it may not have been easy for your family to get up and out this morning.
We realize that you may be exhausted after getting up super early all week,
and spending all of Saturday running around to various events and ballgames.
Your spouse may have been out of town all week, or maybe even travelling internationally today,
and yet, here you are! We are so glad you are here!”
Or for those of you who may be single.
Instead of looking from a distance and wondering, “Are they married or widowed or divorced?”,
let us rather exclaim: “We are so glad you are here! Come join us in our pew.
There’s an empty seat here where we regularly sit.”
Friends, we realize it is not always easy for someone who is single to come to worship by themselves.
Some of you don’t think twice about it, but others can feel awkward or even lonely sitting by themselves.
You are at home here, and among friends.
For those who have arrived here from a different part of the country, or even a different country,
like Central African Republic, or Togo, or from a different faith background with different traditions,
instead of wondering, “I wonder why they’re here. How did they happen upon this Church?”
Let us rather exclaim: “We are so glad that you are here!
I would love to get to know you and hear about your faith journey.
And I’ll be glad to share with you what is so special to me about being part of this congregation.”
Numbers are important, but they do not always shed light on the vitality of a congregation.
Sharing stories often is more telling.
For example, our confirmation class is working with a revised curriculum this year.
Though there are only eight in the class this year, not as large as some of the prior years,
according to several reports, they are already going deeper together in their conversations
with their mentors. These eighth graders are asking good questions and having quality conversations.
Quality conversations in quality relationships can very well be more fulfilling, more lasting
for one’s faith journey, than conversations and relationships with a great quantity of people.
Another example, we do not have a huge number of children who depart for Children’s Chapel
every Sunday, but the children and families that are there are having a meaningful worship experience.
One family, in particular, a family with several young children,
recently has discovered their niche in helping lead Children’s Chapel.
This family has found joy and fulfillment in preparing for and leading this time of worship for children.
Another example is the new members who are joining us.
I do my best to get to know those who are joining our fellowship.
I like to hear their stories and learn how they came to Decatur Presbyterian Church.
The new members I have met with recently share inspiring stories of faith
and encouraging reasons for why they have felt called to join this particular ministry.
Our new members are arriving here from all over the country
from a variety of backgrounds, and they are choosing this congregation,
not because it’s the necessarily the popular place to be,
not because they think it may be good for their business to be here,
not because this is where “the herd” may be settling for the time being,
but they are choosing you because these new people of faith recognize here an opportunity,
an opportunity for sincere Christian community and significant service in the name of Jesus Christ.
Last weekend, thirty of our women worshiped, some of them brand new members,
and sang and prayed together at our women’s retreat.
One of Alex Rodger’s affirmations about the weekend was regarding a group proclamation in worship.
That is, during worship, after the scripture was read, different voices lifted up what the Spirit
may be proclaiming to the Church and, in Alex’s words, as only she can say it: “It was awesome!”
Next weekend, twenty of us will be in North Florida.
We will worship together and work together with others from our presbytery doing Hurricane Relief.
We will not be the most skilled of construction crews, but we will work hard.
We will not likely be the most spiritual of mission groups, but we will pray together.
Over a long weekend, we will seek to do some bit of good for a region devastated by a natural disaster.
As and we cook our meals together and break our bread together and laugh together,
by God’s grace, we will accomplish far more than preparing a base camp for future mission groups.
We will participate, in some small way, in the coming of God’s kingdom.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Many of you know that on Mondays, our flower guild breaks down these beautiful flower arrangements,
and then they deliver them in smaller arrangements to those undergoing some difficult time.
This small gesture has held great meaning and hope for those who have received them.
The flowers in the narthex today are given in loving memory of Kelly McMahon by her parents,
Kevin and Teri. Kelli was a 29-year-old woman who grew up in this congregation.
She had mostly been away from the congregation since her high school years,
but when we held her memorial service here a year ago,
her parents, and her 20-something friends, many of whom have had little connection with a church,
were so grateful for your outpouring of love and support.
Many of us received a green ribbon pin that day, and we have worn that pin ever since,
as a reminder of the brightness of Kelly’s young life,
but also as a commitment to enable awareness of mental health challenges.
People in our community hear about your love and concern for others every day.
They notice what we are seeking to do at Threshold Ministry and Hagar’s House.
They hear about our commitment to nurture faith and fellowship among all ages.
They even contact us out of the blue about our participating in our community groups
and Bible studies and children’s ministries.
As we have said before, one of the national trends is that Sunday morning is still a primary conduit
for new people becoming engaged with the church, but it is now only one among many conduits.
We have youth and their families who feel very engaged with the ministry of this church,
but who are rarely here on a Sunday morning.
We have persons who participate weekly in small group ministries,
but who are often not here on Sundays.
Church as we know it is changing. The 20th century church is no more.
The 21st century church is different. It feels different,
but there are many signs of hope and encouragement in this time of re-formation.
This is Christ’s church after all, and Jesus Christ is alive and well among us!
Here is something critical for us to remember as we go forward.
The Church is not the building. The Church is not the numbers on the annual report.
The Church is the people. You are the Church.
And guess what? You are the Church whether you are here on Sunday morning or somewhere else.
If you are at home in your pajamas having coffee and reading the newspaper on Sunday morning,
there is the Church.
If you are standing on the sidelines of a soccer game on the other side of Atlanta at noon on a Sunday,
the Church is there because you are there.
If you are in the stands in Athens at a swim meet on a Sunday afternoon, the Church is there
because you are there!
If you are visiting Charleston or Savannah or Destin for the weekend,
and you’re sitting at a nice brunch place on a Sunday morning, guess what?
The Church is there because you are there. You are the Church!
You are the body of Christ. You are the hands and feet and sometimes the voice
of him who has called us to be his own.
It does not matter what day it is. Whether Sunday morning or Saturday night
or Tuesday afternoon at work, or Thursday morning in biology class, you are called to be the Church,
the embodiment of the love and grace of Jesus Christ with whomever you meet.
Our mission is to share Jesus Christ’s love with the world,
not just here on Sunday morning, but always!
And as we do this, the ministry of the Church is extended throughout the community.
Mark Ramsey, a long time pastor who led our elder retreat two weeks ago,
encouraged our session to consider our church might play more “away games”.
That is, in a day when many are not coming here just because we’ve opened the doors,
we are encouraged to go out into the world, to love the world,
to share the love of God with whomever we meet,
to proclaim with our deeds, and occasionally our words, the good news of the gospel,
Whether together as a group, or alone, we are the Church, and God has called us, like Isaiah,
to speak and to live the Word of God in a sometimes hostile or indifferent world.
Just recently, at our elder retreat two weekends ago,
I was granted a new image for the Church of the 21st century.
My former image for the church, an image that has been sitting with me for a while,
was that we are on this bridge toward the future and we cannot see what is ahead of us.
It is as if we were walking across the bridge into the fog of the unknown.
Mark Ramsey, who led our elder retreat, gave me a new image that is now ingrained in my mind and soul.
The new image is also of a bridge. In this image, one still cannot see the other end of the bridge,
cannot see where the bridge is leading.
But instead of fog clouding a lonely and worrisome journey across a bridge to the unknown,
there is still a bridge, and you still cannot see the other side of the bridge,
but this bridge is illuminated with light.
Extending across the bridge is a long dinner table, a feast table,
a table full of people of all ages sharing bread and wine.
It may not be a communion table, per se, but it might as well be.
A dinner table has been set for countless friends on the bridge toward the future.
There is joy and laughter, and all ages are there, and all are welcome.
Juan Felipe Herrera, the former US Poet Laureate, reminded us that images and stories
help overcome old ideas and begin to spur new ideas.
I will close with a prayer, one of my favorite prayers from Paul’s letters.
I call this the Pastor’s Prayer for his people. Let us pray…
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that (we) may be strengthened in (our) inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in (our) hearts through faith, as (we) are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that (we) may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that (we) may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church