Recently, I had the honor of preaching the homecoming service for one of my former churches. If you are not familiar with the tradition of a church homecoming, let me briefly explain. Homecoming is an annual service where former church members "come home" and celebrate the heritage of the church. It's sort of like a family reunion, but for churches. Homecoming often includes a special meal after the service with everyone bringing a dish to contribute. It's a very joyous celebration. You should attend one sometime and see.
It is also customary to invite a former pastor of the church as the guest speaker for homecoming. I was honored to return as the homecoming speaker for Mt Zion United Methodist Church in Smarr, GA--a church I served from 2005-2010. I used the occasion to talk about the purpose of life. I have edited my remarks to share with you on my blog today. Perhaps this message might be meaningful for you.
In my last sermon at the end of my tenure as pastor at Mt Zion I told you I would no longer be your pastor, but I would always be your friend. I said, “You might not see me in person, but I will always be somewhere watching you from afar, holding you in prayer, and I will be one of your greatest cheerleaders.” I am so grateful for tools like Facebook that make it possible to see pictures and snippets of the happenings in Smarr, Georgia.
It would take a whole book to share all the memories I have of Mt Zion UMC, but here are just a few of them. Probably my first memory of is how, before I had even served one day their pastor of some folks from Mt Zion came with Eddie and Kathy Rowland to Athens, GA to attend my consecration service through the North Georgia Annual Conference of the UMC at the Classic Center. It meant a lot to have them there cheering for me.
My wife and I were so young back then and our kids were so little. It was a challenge to raise a family and also have a wife that worked and me working full-time as a pastor and also still completing the extensive requirements for full ordination through the UMC. Thankfully, we had a loving church that adopted our kids as their own. Eddie and Lillian Bowden and Elvis and Augustine Hammersley were especially helpful babysitting our kids any time we needed help. (And we needed it a lot!) My youngest, Abigail, was less than 3 years old at the time. She can't remember these special people, but they are in her DNA. The person she and all my children are today was informed by these special people and everyone at Mt Zion.
I remember how the church would all come together to serve food at the Meadows Gun Club and at the Forsythia Festival. It was so hot with the grill going in the middle of summer. Thankfully, there would be 10-15 ice cream churns going in the kitchen to make homemade ice cream to sell. There was nothing like that homemade ice cream while we were under the covered tent grilling hotdogs and hamburgers and serving people with a smile. It gave us a chance to be out in the community giving great service while also earning money for ministry.
I remember getting my very first deer out at Sara and Coolidge Gasset’s place and I remember hunting with Eddie Rowland and Red Ezelle and Rusty Vullo.
I remember how the church was growing and we wanted to start a new Sunday School class, but there weren’t any more rooms. The class would have to meet either in the bathroom or the Pastor’s office! So the church told me I should stop having an office in the church building and just do my work at the parsonage so they could convert my church office into a Sunday school room.
I remember having prayer meetings every week and usually it was just me and Suzy Newman. We faithfully prayed for your needs every week and she always came. One week, I was running a little late. Actually, I was running right on time because I knew it took exactly 10 minutes to drive from the parsonage in Forsyth to the church down highway 41. Unfortunately, I was going to be late because I was stuck behind a slow driver. I was fuming the whole way because they were going too slow and I couldn't go around them. They were in front of me the entire drive. Then they turned and went across the railroad tracks and turned into the church parking lot, and it was Suzy Newman!
I remember staying up all night long with the Relay for Life team and it was so fun/meaningful. They would dress up as the charactersf from Gilligan's Island or as a football team or something else and cheer people walking on the track at Mary Person High School to raise money to fight cancer.
I remember the church paying off the land across the street and then having a note burning ceremony to celebrate. Then they had the idea to build a pavilion, ball fields, and a walking track on the land--something good for the church and a resource for the whole community. I remember everyone working together to build it--installing lights and plumbing and doors. And of course, I remember when we all got together to play softball, I was amazed at the athletic abilities of Katie Rowland, Adair Woodward, and Madison Darden and others who were travel softball players.
I remember all the mission work with Mt Zion. Helping with the refugees from Hurricane Katrina and again when tornadoes ripped through Macon. I remember working with Habitat for Humanity and also Kingdom Builders. I remember how I called up John DeGroat once and asked if he could lead a team to repair an extremely old and run down house in Forsyth and how he did it while our church partnered with several other churches in our area to repair a number of houses for people in great need. I remember painting a house with a team of youth while they laughed and helped a family while serving Jesus. Most of those kids are grown up with kids of their own now.
I remember one time for Trunk or Treat, my wife and I dressed up as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. When I got to church, Connie Ham didn’t recognize me. She came up to me and welcomed me to the church. It was hilarious, but also gratifying to know that she was so dedicated to welcoming strangers to our church.
I remember some of the great ones who have since gone on to glory--Jim Wright, Garnett Woodward, Hank Stevens, Elvis and Augustine Hammersley, Gail King, Tom Branch, Jim Ham, Eddie Bowden, and Rosemary Evans.
When I’m online and I see the Mt Zion's contemporary worship service called The Mount, I remember how we started having a once a month contemporary service (before we even had Grace Pavilion) and Ashley and Allison and I would sing and we had others too--like Chip Bell and Steven Swain and Jeff Dean.
I remember how we first started hiring some extra staff because we needed more help to do all the ministry Jesus was giving us. First, we hired Jeff Dean as our youth minister. Later, we hired David Walker as our administrative assistant.
I remember how we once received a very large donation that enabled us to start a Hardship Assistance Program during the 2008 recession. That program was the inspiration for a similar program we just started a few months ago at my current church a program we call Operation Mercy Drops.
One of my last and favorite memories from my time at Mt Zion happened right at the end of my time there. Me and three others from the church (David Walker, Paul Walls, and Tyler Allen) joined with members of four other church in our district to go on a mission trip to Guatemala. We ran a week long dental clinic and also helped build a church in a remote village. That was a wonderful experience I will never forget.
It's Not About Us
It was not all good memories. We had problems to overcome too. There were some sad times as well. And there were probably some at the church who were not always pleased with my ministry or leadership. That’s ok. We don’t do what we do so people will like us. We do it in remembrance of Christ. That’s something we always have to stay focused on as Christians.
Honestly, it’s hard for church people not to worry about what people think of them--whether they like them or not. Maybe it’s even harder for pastors. You see, we want people to like us. Everyone probably wants people to like them (to some degree), but church people really want people to like them. Church people tend to be the kind of folks who want to do the right thing. We try and it feels good when people look up to us as good people. And preachers tend to be at the head of that list. The admiration of our peers is one of the perks of being a preacher. People respect you. Church people look up to you. Community leaders listen to you and invite you to pray or speak at civic events. It makes you feel important.
Homecoming is a great time for fond memories. We remember all the good times and don’t think much about the bad times or disappointments or disagreements. Sometimes people even idolize their pastor and put you up on a pedestal, though we are never worthy of the way some people see us. However, if I’m being totally honest, it feels good to be the “good guy”, to be the “hero”, the honorary guest, or to have people’s respect and admiration. Am I making any sense?
The problem is, sometimes following Christ means saying things or doing things that people won’t like. Maybe it even puts you at odds with the culture around you--especially if society is moving farther away from God’s values. So Christians have got to get over this infatuation with being “people pleasers”. It’s ok to be a likeable person, but that can’t be our most important goal.
This life isn't even about us anyway. We humans are so self centered. Do you think you are on this earth for your own sake? You may never have questioned that. Or if you have thought about it, you may not have gotten to the core of it. When we are being most noble, we may have thought “Well, sure, it’s not about me as an individual. It’s about us as a community of people.” And so maybe we think it’s more about the greater good than the good of just one individual. However, I think that misses the mark too. Is life really about people and what’s best for humanity? Or is Life’s Purpose even greater? What about creation, the animals, the environment? Are these secondary? What about God Himself? Is this life we live together and your individual life about something more than just what’s good for people? This is a question of great consequence, because it may determine everything about the way you live the precious years God gives you.
Jesus gave us a clue about the purpose of life when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. In this meal, he took ordinary elements from everyday life--bread and wine, things that were consumed at nearly every meal in New Testament times. Jesus used these ordinary elements for an extraordinary purpose--to symbolize how His body would be given and His blood would be shed for us and the whole world. And Jesus ordered that we should celebrate this sacred meal often as a way to remember… Him. The Apostle Paul recalls what Jesus said that fateful night he was betrayed and arrested.
1 Corinthians 11:23-25
23 For I pass on to you what I received from the Lord himself. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread 24 and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.”
In Remembrance of Christ
When I think of all the memories we made together at Mt Zion, I remember it was all about Christ. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about you either. All the wonderful things we shared, the laughter, the joy, the connection, it was all possible because of the common connection we have with Jesus. If Christ had not allowed himself to be broken and poured out, nothing would unite us. We would not be one body. We would be a bunch of individuals chasing our own individual dreams and selfish ambitions. But Jesus came along and said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). And He said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” (Mark 8:35). So the Christian is the person who lives out the words of Galatians 2:20, where Paul said, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
No friends, all the memories we have are only possible as a subcategory of THE GREAT MEMORY--the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the more we accept this and live this, the greater, more meaningful and memorable are our lives.
You see. It’s all about Him. The Life we live is not about us--not as individuals and not even as humanity as a whole. Humanity was made by God for God’s glory. In His incredible grace, God blesses us with deep meaningful relationships and experiences in this life. But even if He didn’t, it would still be all about Him. We were created for a relationship with God.
Unfortunately, we often turn our attention to a relationship with others--other people, other things, even other gods. We may even selfishly put our main attention on ourselves. And when these other things become the main focus of life, you know what we call it? We call that idolatry. It is the chief sin that leads to all the other sins in life. It is the very reason that Jesus had to die in agony on the cross.
So, God in His gracious, unexplainable, unconditional love came to our broken world and lived as one of us in Jesus Christ. And to show us His love and plan for our salvation, He said to His Disciples (and us) “This is my body given for you and this is my blood… Do this in remembrance of me.”
So, I’d like to invite you to think on these things today--and especially when we celebrate the sacred meal of Holy Communion, in remembrance of The One who made it possible for us to know and love each other now and for all eternity.