A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on August 14, 2011.
For twelve and one-half years, I have looked forward to worshiping with you every Sunday. On those Sundays when I was not here, I longed to be with you. Not all preachers feel this way and I understand. Every church is not as healthy as Smoke Rise.
This is not a day I have looked forward to, however. It may have been the first Sunday I pulled into the parking lot with a lump in my throat. This is because today I must tell you Jackie and I are moving back to Kentucky where I have accepted the call of the First Baptist Church in Frankfort to be their next pastor.
You know this decision has not come without a lot of thought and prayer. It has been several months in the making, just as our decision to come here was almost thirteen years ago.
You also know this decision puts Jackie and me closer to two of our children and all four of our grandchildren. Without a doubt, this played a significant role in our decision.
Quite frankly, I thought we would be here until I retired and then move closer to family. I never thought another church would come knocking on my door at my age, 61, giving us the opportunity to go ahead and move into our future. Their compelling story and this opportunity became irresistible.
I do not know an easy or painless way to leave a church Jackie and I admire as much as Smoke Rise and a people we love as much as you. Neither do I have words to express my appreciation for the honor you have given me to be called your pastor. As far as I am concerned, no preacher has had a greater privilege.
You embraced us the moment we arrived and accepted us as one of your own. You opened your hearts and homes to us and let us walk with you in the good and bad times of your lives. You cared about us as we did you and expressed your support with the kindest notes and most encouraging words.
With each passing year, I would tell my friends about you and how fortunate I was to be your pastor. They never hesitated to tell me they thought I had been here long enough and someone else needed to experience the love, namely one of them.
There are so many other things for which I am grateful, though.
Thank you for rolling up your sleeves and helping the least, the last and the lost among us. You have “given yourselves away” in a variety of meaningful ways and truly made a difference in the lives of people near and far.
Thank you for studying scripture with open minds and hearts and providing a safe place for people to ask questions and explore the mysteries of life and faith. We have all grown spiritually because we could be honest with one another, as Jesus and his disciples were.
Thank you for being good neighbors to our Jewish friends. Your gift of hospitality has transformed their lives and given them hope.
Thank you for being good stewards of our facilities and campus. You have renovated every part of this building as a gift to the next generation.
Thank you for paying off our debt. This is one of your greatest gifts to the next generation, especially in these uncertain economic times.
Thank you for taking the pursuit of justice and peace seriously. Your voice, like the prophets, has been heard far and wide.
Thank you for embracing the power of love which transforms lives rather than the love of power which attempts to control people.
Thank you for making all people feel welcomed and treating them with respect. Your smiles and firm handshakes have given lonely people hope.
Thank you for loving even those you at times disagreed with, including me. You voiced your opinions and listened to others with the respect neighbors deserve.
Thank you for modeling grace to one another and all who entered these doors. You have been faithful disciples as the presence of Christ in a hurting world.
Thank you for laughing at the corny things I said and I said lots of them. I love to laugh and so do you. Your laughter lifted my spirits on many occasions and I hope it did yours, too.
Thank you for giving me room to grow and being patient as I grappled with the complexities of life. I found my voice at Smoke Rise. That may sound strange to you, but it is true. You let me think out loud as I tried to figure out how ancient scripture intersected with life as we know it. I cannot thank you enough for this.
Thank you for providing a wonderful staff to work with, past and present. They have been and are some of my dearest friends. They have taught me so much about life, faith and church. They have worked hard every week and loved you as I have. They have been incredibly creative and bold. They have taken risks and inspired me to do so. I could not have been your pastor without their help. Thank you for this wonderful gift and giving them the freedom to dream, explore, try new things and lead.
Thank you for volunteering above and beyond the call of duty. You embraced the idea that every member is a minister, discovered your gifts and have been using them to address problems and meet needs. Way to go!
Thank you for being classy and doing all things with class. Smoke Rise has the reputation for excellence and the people who enter these doors know they will see, hear, taste and feel the best life has to offer.
Thank you for thoughtful worship and the best music this side of heaven. I mentioned earlier that I long for you when I am absent. Worship at Smoke Rise is that special.
Thank you for loving people at their worst and providing a soft place for them to fall, finding forgiveness and hope for a new life. This may be your most unique gift. I’ve watched many a person reconstruct his or her life because of your kindness.
Thank you for making special occasions special and including Jackie and me in so many of them. You made each one unique and memorable. These are the memories which will travel with us to Frankfort and places beyond.
Thank you for letting us dance with you. While Jackie and I will never make it on Dancing with the Stars, we still love to dance the night away. You gave us many opportunities to do this and we appreciate each of them.
Thank you for the best meals, receptions and banquets any church has ever hosted. I have often said that we do church in a restaurant as much as Lou operates a kitchen in a church. This takes a lot of finesse and cooperation, which Smoke Rise is known for. “If we feed them they will come” has been our motto. Lou and her fine crew fed us and you came. Thanks to all who made this work so well.
Thank you for providing a safe place for babies, children and young people to laugh, learn and develop life-long relationships. I’ve heard several children say Smoke Rise is their favorite place on earth. That’s been music to my ears.
Thank you for being so good to each other and always showing up when others needed you. You figured out a long time ago that the purpose of religion is to build community and you have been doing it since day one. What a treat it has been to be a part of such a warm, empathetic and encouraging fellowship.
Thank you for seeing faith as a journey rather than a fixed condition or a body of beliefs. You understand that just as God called Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and head to a new land, so He invites all of us to join Him on this journey of faith.
For some, like Jackie and me, the call takes us to new places and people, which means we must leave the familiar and those we have grown to love. For others, the call takes them to new places and people without leaving home.
Be aware, however, the call comes to everyone and the positive response to that call is described in this text as faith. It leads to a deeper relationship with God, one based upon love and trust, to new relationships with people who need the gifts we have to offer as much as we need them and to deeper levels of understanding and maturity.
Rest assured, as well, that the same God who leads people to new and distant places leads others to this place. God is aware of what each of us needs and, like a loving parent, is always working on our behalf. One of the happiest days of my life will be the day I make a call to your new pastor and welcome her or him to Smoke Rise. “The finest part of your journey of faith is beginning,” I will tell that person, “settle in and savor every part of it.”