It is good to be here today. It is good to stand once again in this pulpit.
I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I’m a bit nervous;
I’m “rusty” after being away from the pulpit for so long.
Let me begin by saying: Thank you! Thank you so much!
I am so grateful for a church whose personnel policy includes a sabbatical for pastors.
I am so grateful for our session who encouraged and supported the idea of me receiving this sabbatical. And I am grateful for a sabbatical team that helped me think through what I wanted to learn
and experience during my time away. Thank you, sincerely, to all of you!

And this is a good time to thank all the staff for what they did during my absence,
I especially want to thank Rev. Alex Rodgers, who took on many additional responsibilities
over the summer, in addition to her own. From all reports, she has done a remarkable job!
I hope you feel as fortunate as I do for all the members of our staff – both full time and part time staff.
We are a blessed congregation.
And we are blessed by all of you lay leaders who helped plan this Kickoff Sunday
with the welcoming banners and food trucks and events for children and youth. Thank you!

Many of you have been asking about my summer – what did I do, where did I go, what did I learn?
For a couple of Wednesday night programs, on August 29 and September 5,
I will be glad to tell you all about it, probably more than you want to know,
and to address whatever questions you may have.
And over the coming months, I will be glad to sit down with any of our small groups
or Sunday School classes to dig into one of the many books I read about the Church this summer.
For now, I’ll tell you this…sabbatical is wonderful!
I truly did not know how much I needed it and how helpful it would be until I experienced it.
I have returned rested, refreshed, renewed, and recommitted to the ministry we share.
In some ways, I feel like a different person.
In reality, I think I am simply more the person that I have been in the past,
more like that person that God called to be the pastor of this congregation eleven years ago.
Serving as a pastor of a vibrant, active congregation and raising four sons
has been “consuming” over the past eleven years, to say the least, and so,
have time to enjoy some of those activities and experiences that bring me life and renew my joy
has been wonderful.
The sabbatical afforded me the opportunity, in a sense, to remember who I am and whose I am.
I hope that my reflections on what nurtures my belonging to God and others will encourage you
to consider what brings you life and joy and deepens your sense of belonging.

There were many times this summer when I could not help but exclaim – “I feel blessed”.
My sister, who went on sabbatical several years ago, calls it “sabbatical grace”.
Whenever some feeling of unexpected gratitude would arise,
or I would find myself in awesome wonder over some aspect of God’s good creation,
then these words would bubble to surface… “I feel blessed…”
I felt blessed sitting next to my sister in worship with her congregation in Syracuse, New York
just a few weeks ago.
I felt blessed that warm morning when Melanie and I sat quietly in kayaks watching a mother loon
on Lake Pocasset in Maine. The loon swam around with two chicks on her back, clucking occasionally,
only ten yards or so from us. She would occasionally knock the chicks off of her back,
teaching them to learn the feel of the water. We sat for a long time in silence, just watching the loons.
I felt blessed that bright afternoon when we rode horseback with extended family members
across a farm and down into the woods near Springer Mountain in north Georgia.
There is nothing quite like the soothing sound of creaking saddle leather and clomping hooves
to make you feel close to the earth and to the people around you.
I felt blessed numerous times in Scotland, like the joyful evening when our group had the privilege
of joining together in a crowded hotel parlor for the reaffirmation of marriage vows
for Neal and Jill Davies, or the cool afternoon when a hush of wonder came over the group
as we stepped onto an overlook and took in the sight of the bright green mountains and valleys
of a very special place called Glencoe.
I felt blessed in a London pub when we heard the joyful sound of a hundred young men
singing “God Save the Queen” when England scored a goal on Panama in a World Cup soccer game.
And I felt blessed hearing songs of praise led by young seminary students during a sunset worship service
on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

I felt blessed by the feel of puppy fur as my son John looked on with pride at his first dog,
our first grand-dog, a German Short Haired Pointer named Scout.
I felt blessed at a Toyota dealership in Nashville, when Mac revved the engine on his new SUV,
that he purchased all by himself!
I felt blessed at Luke’s enthusiasm over the Churchill museum in London,
when he said that he could have spent all afternoon exploring that timeline of Churchill’s life.
And I felt blessed by the skip in the step of our eldest son, 25 year old Hall,
as we toured the stadium and locker room of his beloved Chelsea, an English Premier soccer team.

I felt blessed sitting around the breakfast room table with my parents and my sisters,
not long after my parents’ 60th anniversary,
talking through important papers, like their health care directives and wills and powers of attorney.
I felt blessed cooking a Blue Apron meal at home, encouraged by Melanie who has prepared
the vast majority of our meals together over the last 29 years.

Allysen mentioned in a recent sermon the three questions that are at the forefront for youth
and young adults, questions that all of us will wrestle with off and on throughout their lives:
The question of identity – Who am I?
The question of belonging – To whom do I belong?
The question of purpose – Why am I here?
I am grateful for a sabbatical which afforded the opportunity to wrestle with those questions again.

Today, we kick off a new program year with the theme “Belonging”.
Our theme of Belonging will circle around all three of those major life questions – who are we?,
who are we in relation to others?, and what is our purpose while we are here?
We will focus upon Belonging to God over the next two months,
then spend some time this fall telling stories about Belonging to Church.
and during Advent worship discover some new stories about Belonging to Jesus.

I belong to God. I know this in my bones.
My sense of belonging to God derives from looking back over my life
and recognizing God’s “fingerprints”, as it were, at important moments in the past.
My sense of belonging is ground by my extended family, by generations who have gone before me,
who prioritized worship and prayer.
My sense of belonging to God is nurtured by the recognition of God’s presence in the natural world.
John Calvin called this “natural revelation” and claimed that no human being,
regardless of tribe or clan, continent or culture, could be excused from recognizing
the presence of the Divine in the wonders of nature.

The sabbatical afforded the opportunity to spend significant time beyond the walls of Church.
As your pastor, I enjoy the regular privilege of noticing and talking about God’s presence at work.
Our daily language and practices here remind us constantly of God’s presence.
This summer, I was reminded of the many opportunities to experience God’s presence
beyond the Church, many times when I could affirm: God is in this!
God is present here in this natural place, or in this London pub, or on this historic battlefield,
every bit as much as God in the sanctuary!

The psalms, which we will explore over the coming weeks, affirm the presence and work of God
both in the sanctuary and beyond. Our psalm for today is appropriate
in that it is sung in the congregation but it reflects upon God’s work far beyond the sanctuary.

Hear the Word of God, Psalm 111:
Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is God’s work, and his righteousness endures forever.
God has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
The Lord provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
God has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of God’s hands are faithful and just; all God’s precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
God sent redemption to his people; the Lord has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.
God’s praise endures forever.

The grass will wither and the flower will fade, but the Word of the Lord will endure forever.

On sabbatical, I had the opportunity to remember and experience what is most important to me…
1) Family
During the sabbatical, I enjoyed time with many different people, but I was very intentional
about spending time with those who are closest to me.
Before I was ever a pastor, I was a member of a family.
The roles of husband and father, son and brother, in-law and uncle, are very important to me.
Melanie and I had more time together this summer than we have had in years. It was wonderful!
I spent significant time with my sons and my parents and my sisters and my in-laws.
These experiences ground me and help define who I am and to whom I belong,
These roles are an important part of my purpose in life.

2) Re-creation in the great outdoors
During the sabbatical, I had many opportunities to enjoy God’s good gifts of creation.
As some of you know, I am a “nature boy” at heart, a trait that I share with a number of you.
Being outdoors in the natural world is life-giving to me.
I breathe more deeply when I spend time among the trees on a regular basis;
this has become a spiritual discipline for me.
This summer, we hiked several mountains, Mount Washington and Cadillac Mountain
and Stone Mountain. I love hiking, especially the joy of reaching another summit.
We joined a number of you for a pilgrimage through the beautiful Scottish Highlands.
We discovered the unexpected pleasure of exploring Monhegan Island off of the coast of Maine
with the indomitable Larry Fossett.
These and many other moments in the woods or on the lake brought me life and joy.

3) Learning and exploring
The sabbatical afforded the unique opportunity of extended travel and exploration.
I am a lifelong learner and an explorer at heart.
I love to learn new ideas. It brings me joy to explore new places.
I easily become intrigued about all kinds of subjects – history, economics, geology, botany, art.
Before our group took the pilgrimage to Scotland, I read all about the history of Scotland and its people.
While we were there, I soaked in all that I could about the castles and battlefields,
the churches and cathedrals, the lakes and mountains and animals and flowers.
The week we spent in London with two of our sons was extremely full.
There is so much to see and do and learn.

When I returned home, I hit hard the stack of books about the Church that I chose for the sabbatical.
My specific interest has been listening to what the “experts” are saying about how the Church
will respond and adapt to the challenges of today’s culture.
One of my realizations this summer is that I should less concerned about how I personally will navigate
the uncertain future of the Church, because, in many respects,
the coming decades of Church work may feel like a lot like exploration.
We will continually be discovering new practices and ways of being, constantly learning how to adapt.
What has been anxiety-producing for me now seems exciting and hopeful.

4) Worship
I rediscovered that I truly love and am spiritually fed by worship.
I wanted to go to worship on Sundays, even when I didn’t have to!
Nearly every Sunday, in a wide variety of settings, from evensong in the glorious Westminster Abbey
to that mountaintop service at sunset to a crowded wooden chapel to a mega church black box building,
I found myself gathered with others to sing praise to God, to give thanks and to pray with others,
and to hear God’s Word.
For me, the question of “who I am” is grounded in an understanding of who God is.
As the psalmist proclaims: God is gracious and merciful…
God’s righteousness endures forever…Full of honor and majesty is God’s work…
I stand in awe of God and of God’s amazing creation.
I stand in awe and wonder over Jesus Christ – the life he lived, the lessons he taught,
his death and resurrection. I stand in awe before the surprising gifts and revelations of the Holy Spirit.

The psalmist cries out: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
“Fear” in the Hebrew text can be understood as “awe, wonder, humility.”
I belong to the One that created us from the dust of the earth,
who breathed life into our sinews, who enables us to run and to dance,
to think and create, to work and to play, to love and be loved.
I experienced brief moments of worship in many special places throughout the summer,
like yesterday morning when that single dove, that symbol of God’s presence,
interrupted my morning jog as Chevy and I came around a corner and surprised her into flight.
To pause and take notice of a dove and give thanks – that too is worship.
But I also was reminded of how important corporate worship is to me.
Worship with others broadens my heart and mind, and nurtures ties of belonging.

Who am I?
I am a pastor. I am your pastor, by God’s grace. But first, I am a child of God,
a member of a family, a man inspired by nature who loves to learn and explore.
Whose am I?
I belong to God, the Creator of wondrous heavens and an awe-inspiring earth,
the Infinite Trinity who dances around together in mutuality and cooperation.
I belong to God and I belong to you.
We are a people called to worship and serve together the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ,
called to follow together in the challenging paths of Jesus and bring glory to his name.

I have shared a bit of my story because I would like to hear more of your stories.
Story-telling is an important way of sharing who we are and nurturing belonging.
I encourage you to tell someone some part of your story today.
Talk with a friend or a family member, or perhaps someone you are just getting to know,
and tell them something about who you are, what’s important to you,
what brings you life and joy and purpose.

In a few weeks, we will begin new Community Groups.
You can register for them today on our website, send an email to Alex Rodgers
or simply call the Church office.
These newly forming small groups will be reading a book that encourages us
to embrace the sacred in the midst of the ordinary and to affirm the ordinary in the midst of sacred.
We will share stories that relate to our daily moments and weekly routines,
and build on the opportunity to nurture belonging to God and to one another.
I encourage all of you to participate, especially if you are not currently in another small group or class.

I will close with our New Testament reading from Ephesians,
a passage I can still remember preaching on during my seminary internship over 25 years ago.
In the fifth chapter of this letter to the early Church in Ephesus,
the Apostle Paul encourages his readers, encourages us, to be careful how we live,
to make the most of our limited days on earth.
I may not have made the most of all my time on sabbatical –
I confess that I stayed up too late some nights and slept in the next day…because I could, I guess!,
I watched a few too many HGTV shows while thinking about how we might make
some renovations to our home – but I know I made the most of at least some of the time.
And I am grateful. I am grateful to remember who I am and whose I am.
I am grateful for a renewed sense of purpose, of why I am here.

Paul claims that the days are “evil”.
I don’t know if our days are “evil”, but I do know that they are challenging.
I do know that our days are different than they were a few decades ago,
both in the Church and the world. I know that our days can be anxiety-producing,
that they can be heavy or too busy, and they can can distract us from what is most important to us,
and some days can drain from us what brings life and joy.

Hear the Word of God from Ephesians 5:15-20:
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery (“asozo” in the Greek – against your salvation, your wholeness and healing); but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
August 19, 2018