A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on September 25, 2011.

Philippians 1:3-6

What do you say after almost thirteen years and 560 sermons? To be honest with you, I did not know if I would even be able to speak because my heart would be so full. On the other hand, I knew I wanted to address you one more time from this pulpit as your pastor and I was confident God would enable me to do so.

I have decided to set aside the lectionary texts for today and go in a different direction. I took my cue from a television host who asked his guest an intriguing question, “What do you know for sure?” I stopped what I was reading and listened carefully to the answer. This is, after all, why the host asked it.

It was at that moment I knew I needed to answer this question in my final sermon. I am grateful, however, I have had time to reflect upon this question rather than shooting from the hip as the guest on the television show did.

What do I know for sure? At the outset, let me say I am certain about fewer things than I was years ago. At the same time, though, I believe more strongly what I know for sure.

What do I know for sure? I know chocolate is good for you, Lou’s famous fried chicken will draw a crowd and the Varsity has the best onion rings in Atlanta.

I know attendance at Smoke Rise during football season rises and falls with what the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets do on Saturday, rooting for the Braves will give you an ulcer and in these parts, March Madness is a disease, not the best month-long sporting event in college ball.

I know the aisle which now spans the width of the sanctuary is the most popular improvement made to our facility in the last twelve and one-half years, paying off our debt in 2008 was the timeliest thing we did and driving a riding lawn mower disguised as a car down this aisle during a Christmas play was the riskiest thing we did.

I know this church loves to laugh, knows how to celebrate and will rally around anyone having a problem and surround them with a wall of protection.

What else do I know for sure?

I know all of us need God. Life is bigger than we are and God can make such a difference in how we handle our problems, challenges, struggles, temptations and decisions. Just as a child needs loving and responsible parents, so we need God and need to trust God with the same confidence a child places in her parents.

I know we need to be careful not to create God in our own image or limit God to our expectations. We do God such a disservice when we attempt this and confuse those who are seeking God. God is greater than our imagination, thank goodness, so we need to let God be God.

We don’t need to tell God whom He can love, accept, bless, forgive, help or punish. Instead, we need to focus our attention upon developing a close relationship with God, not upon trying to confine, control or manipulate God, which, of course, is futile.  Doctors tell me the best patients are those who don’t try to be the doctor. They are better listeners and will follow instructions. The same is true with the Great Physician.I know we need each other. Remember what Rabbi Harold Kushner said when asked the purpose of religion? “It is to build community.”

Nothing is more important than relationships. I am convinced the divine and human merge when we turn strangers into friends. So, listen to their stories. Walk in their shoes. Be kind to them. Lend a helping hand. Be an encourager. You need them and they need you.

At the same time, cherish the relationships you have with family members and close friends. Don’t let anything come between you; it is not worth it and so unnecessary if you embrace the concept of grace.

Learning to live at peace with imperfect people is perhaps the strongest evidence of faith. Only by God’s grace can someone’s worst behavior bring out our best. Anyone can sever a relationship; only the strong can redeem it.

I know we need to be good role models. “Are you going to make a good choice?” my daughter, Amy, frequently asks her soon-to-be four-year-old twins. “I hope you do,” she promptly tells them, “but I can’t make the decision for you.”

No one can make our decisions for us, either, but a lot hangs in the balance each time we are confronted with a choice. Our world is desperate for good role models, people who honor God, as Jesus did, by the way they live.

“What does the Lord require of you?” Micah asked, “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

We need to be honest, compassionate and humble.

We need to be mature, responsible, industrious, trustworthy, reliable, courageous, unselfish, kind and forgiving.

We need to build bridges of goodwill and understanding rather than walls of suspicion and hate.

We need to be peacemakers who resolve differences, not escalate them.

We need to oppose evil and correct injustices in ways that offer hope even to the offender.

We need to leave the world better than we found it.

“So live your life that when it comes time to die, that’s all you have to do.” Live this way every day by making good choices.

I know we need to be wise and faithful stewards. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We’ve been blessed to be a blessing and we’ll not be happy until we are. Few things will enable you to die in peace more than knowing you are getting ready to be greeted by a generous God who will hug you and whisper in your ear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Be generous with your time, talents and resources. Don’t believe your needs matter more than your neighbors and you can prosper at their expense. This drawbridge mentality has nothing to do with the gospel.

Be a good neighbor. Learn to live with less so others can live. As Bono has reminded us several times, “Where you live should not determine if you live.” Elevate giving above receiving and serving above being served.

“The only time it is about me is at Baskin Robbins,” I said in a sermon from this pulpit. It’s true. When I go to Baskin Robbins, I choose what flavor of ice cream I want and enjoy every bite. This is one of the few times, however, it is all about me. Each decision I make impacts someone else and I need to make sure what I do is as good for others as it is for me.

I know we need to differentiate between cultural and biblical values. They are not always the same. Just because something is legal, popular or feels comfortable doesn’t mean it is right. Jesus rarely made influential people comfortable. He usually turned their world upside down.

I know the essence of our faith is hearing the pleas for help that others ignore or even try to silence. Jesus, who embodied the very heart and nature of God, demonstrated this repeatedly.

“Call him,” Jesus said to his disciples when he heard blind Bartimaeus screaming for help. Others tried to silence this beggar, who was a nuisance. Jesus stopped walking, singled him out of a large crowd, called him to the front of the line, asked him what he wanted and healed him. 

If we miss this, everything else we do is meaningless.

Since we are moving back to Kentucky to be closer to our children and grandchildren, there is something I know about parenting. “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” Every parent is one phone call away from ecstasy or despair. As a parent, I am confident God understands.

I know Smoke Rise will be fine in the months and years to come. It has always been my goal to leave a church healthy and ready to meet the challenges ahead. I have done my best to achieve this.

Smoke Rise has a clear sense of identity, mission, purpose, direction and methodology. We know who God has called us to be and have found our unique place in this community.

We are a moderate, free and faithful Baptist Church for all the people of our community where everyone can grow spiritually and be involved in the work of the Kingdom.

We are a thinking, nurturing church, providing a safe place for persons to ask questions, explore, learn and grow along their journey of faith.

We are a church on mission, giving members opportunities to be the presence of Christ by using their time, talents, gifts and resources to meet the needs of people locally and globally.

We are a worshiping church, providing worship services where people encounter God’s presence and respond to God’s grace.

We are a relational church, meeting all people at their point of need with compassion and grace.

We are a church where every member is a minister, encouraged to give him or herself away.

When you connect these guiding principles with the most dedicated and competent staff ready to lead the church during the interim, you know Smoke Rise is in good hands. I leave with peace in my heart, knowing the church I love with an everlasting love has already set sail on a new, bold and exciting venture.

There is one other thing I know. Jackie and I will miss you more than words can express.

“I thank my God every time I remember you,” Paul wrote to his dear friends in Philippi. “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” Philippians 1:3-6.

I feel the same way, and so does Jackie. You have elevated friendship to a new level. All I can say is that now that I have been at Smoke Rise, I have seen a glimpse of heaven and experienced life at its best. I cannot thank you enough and will forever be grateful.

“God be with you ‘till we meet again.”

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