Atlanta First UMC 175th Anniversary Celebration Sermon

Good morning. I’m honored to be here with you as part of Atlanta First UMC’s 175th anniversary worship series. 

My thanks to Reverend Smothers, a proud Emory graduate, for inviting me to join in this special celebration and talk about our shared history and enduring connections.

Full disclosure—although I have often had the opportunity to hear some fine sermons, this is the first time I’ve been asked to deliver one, so the experience is new to me.

And while I’m not a religious scholar—unlike some of the outstanding Emory faculty members in your congregation and church leadership team—I’m always up for a big challenge. So I will do my best.

I’ve spent my entire career in higher education, approaching four decades, and I think the reason for that, at least in part, has something to do with my family.

I come from a family where learning, questioning, and debate—okay, at least with my siblings, we could just call it arguing—were a part of growing up.

I was very privileged to be exposed to learning from a young age. My dad was a professor, and I’ve always understood the great power that education has to uplift people and change the world for the better.

And that belief is also a fundamental part of my own faith, Judaism, which has influenced me throughout my life through its teaching about respect, ethics, and yes, always studying and learning.

I have been in Atlanta and at Emory for two years now, and Atlanta was one of the reasons my wife Carmel and I decided to move here—to be part of a large, vibrant, and diverse community.

I value our university’s place within Atlanta and the importance of our strong relationships with the people of the city that is our home.

And Atlanta First United Methodist Church, as one of Atlanta’s very first religious congregations, shares much of the same history as Emory. Each, in its own distinct way, shaping our society and transforming with the ebb and flow of time.

Together, our roots run deep and are linked directly to the Methodist story.

In 1836, the Georgia Methodist Conference received a charter to establish a college in Oxford, Georgia, that would be named after John Emory, a Methodist bishop, who envisioned an education that would enhance the character of students as well as their minds.

A little over a decade later, the Methodists who worshipped in early Atlanta would construct a log house—an interdenominational chapel—that, at one time, was shared by at least five different religious groups.

Ultimately, Atlanta’s early Methodists built their own place of worship, completing Wesley Chapel in 1848.

The following decades, of course, would bring tremendous change—war, emancipation, reconstruction, and legalized segregation.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Emory College would move to Atlanta, where three of our university presidents would serve as senior ministers in this very church. 

And Atlanta First UMC would be rebuilt several times over before finding a home right here within these beautiful walls of Stone Mountain granite, along with the only church bell in Atlanta known to have survived the Civil War—which is just amazing.

A church and a university that literally grew up with Atlanta.

175 years into the story, today I look out at you and those live streaming and see you are a far more diverse and welcoming congregation than the church’s founders could ever imagine—led by a pastor who is the first African American woman to take on that role—a congregation deeply engaged in social justice, supporting the unhoused, and nurturing vital connections across our religious communities. 

Rising from a past that is still with us but also envisioning a more equitable future.

The same can be said for Emory, and in recent years especially, we have taken a hard look at who we’ve been and importantly who we want to become.

I came to Atlanta in the midst of a tumultuous and tragic summer—2020—as America faced a profound moment of reckoning, sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, but fueled by a centuries-long history of racism, discrimination, and violence against Black men and women. 

And as someone new to the city and to Emory, I knew that I needed to listen and learn—to hear the voices of a coalition of our student leaders, who were repeating the requests of decades of Black students at Emory, to learn about their concerns and find out how our university could finally address them and be a force for good.

Emory’s history mirrors the history of the American South. And like this church, our university has struggled with its own past that we must confront.

But the qualities that drew me to Emory included its mission to serve humanity, its commitment to justice, and a record of being willing to change and grapple with the most challenging social issues, including the fight to integrate colleges in Georgia, which eventually succeeded, though years after Brown vs. the Board of Education.

We must strive to be a university that leads and, in turn, prepares our students to become leaders who are inspired to create a more just society.

To that end, Emory has taken action to improve the experience for all students and live our values while confronting injustices of the past to forge a stronger, more inclusive future.

In my time at Emory, those steps have included: 

  • Developing new relationships and engaging with the Muscogee people whose lands Emory was built upon.
  • We are studying and preserving the stories of the enslaved individuals who constructed our original college.
  • This includes engaging our community, including descendants, in the creation of memorials for Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford College campuses, in recognition of the lives of the enslaved people who made Emory possible.
  • Establishing scholarships for the descendants of enslaved individuals with connections to Emory.
  • A year ago, we hosted a major symposium entitled In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism, and the Journey Toward Restorative Justice, which connected present-day racism to the history of slavery and land dispossession.
  • Scholarly examination of long-standing honorific names, which has led to changing the names of several buildings and a national research center.
  • And working closely with the Emory Police Department to improve law enforcement at Emory to serve our community.

We have more work to do, but I’m proud of the progress made thus far.

When I accepted an invitation to speak with you, I learned of your 175th anniversary theme, “Forward in Faith,” based on scripture from the Book of Hebrews, and reflected in your church’s continuing mission of “putting faith into action.”

In the Jewish tradition, faith is something that lives deep within us, a fundamental part of who we are as Jews.

But it’s not a passive exercise; rather, more of an action word that includes grappling with discomfort and ambiguity and opening our minds to new perspectives so that we may understand, empathize, heal, and transform.

I’m reminded of the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, words that literally mean “repairing the world.”

In Judaism this phrase has been applied, frequently, as a call to action to fight for justice, to give of your time, energy, and resources to those in need, rising from the belief that we are all interconnected and that we can make strides towards healing this world of ours.

While we can only make a small contribution to this enormous task of repair as individuals, we must not be daunted by the scale and the scope. We must find our own way of making a difference.

But how do we go about doing that?

That question brings to mind a reflection by the brilliant 19th-century Rabbi Israel Salanter, who said, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. So, I tried to change my nation. When I couldn’t change my nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town, so, as an older man, I tried to change my family.”

“Now, as an old man, I realize that the only thing I can change is myself. And suddenly I realize that if, long ago, I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family could have made an impact on our town. The town’s impact could have changed the nation, and I could indeed have changed the world.”

Like the members of this church, Emory is a community of individuals with the ability to change themselves, our university family, our communities, and the world.

The fact that a university founded by Methodists has long been home to a vibrant spiritual community including Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, many Christian denominations and other faith groups, and now its first Jewish president, is a reminder that though we must know our past, we can transcend it by learning from it.

At any time, you can walk into spaces within Emory’s Cannon Chapel and find Muslim students at prayer, Jewish students gathering for high holy days, or Christian students preparing for Sunday worship rituals unfolding in the same sacred space.

And later this year, our students will be able to gather in the new Emory Interfaith Center, which will allow them to practice their own faith traditions and learn about each other’s traditions—a community hub for celebrations, education, and dialogue.

At Emory, the fabric of religious and spiritual faiths creates richness and depth that lays the groundwork for understanding and strengthens our community.

And I find that even now, in a world tested by war and disease, climate change and political divisiveness, and so much uncertainty, our students still look to the future with hope. That too, is an incredible act of faith.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life, leadership, and vision for equality changed Atlanta and then changed the world, described faith as “ . . . Taking the first step . . . even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Throughout our shared histories there are so many times that we haven’t been able to see the whole staircase—not even the first steps.

And yet, we continue to climb those steps knowing we will get there.

When I reflect on the work ahead for both Emory and Atlanta First UMC, I am comforted knowing that our faith in the future, our driving belief in the need to support our communities and repair the world, our willingness to demonstrate tikkun olam will always be there, a guiding force for good.

And my key message for this sermon is this: education can serve as a critical engine in driving that change.

Whether in an Emory lecture hall or a Methodist bible study class, learning and discovery can strengthen our understanding of history, our commitment to our values, our connection to others, and through that knowledge, we are better prepared for what lies ahead.

Both of our institutions have an important role to play using education to propel action and positive change and empowering real progress.

Just think of the groundbreaking you’ve planned to cap off this 175th anniversary celebration. In partnership with the city of Atlanta, you are developing new, affordable, attainable housing to provide families a way to live in our downtown again.

And I join with many at Emory in thanking you for your vision, your courage, and for being an inspiring force for change in our community.

As I conclude, I’m reminded that part of your church tradition is to include a scripture reading. I will remind you again that is not my specialty, but I will leave you with a well-known verse from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: Verse 1, that has also been carried forward in song that I remember as a child of the 1960s: 

“For everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. . . .”

Here in Atlanta, I believe this is our season for learning and growth, for reconciliation and repair, for service and action.

And this is our time to learn that in our lives we have the ability, in our own distinct ways, to help one another and create a vision for the future celebrating our differences, coming together to learn, teach, and give of ourselves, and to do our part to heal the world.

Thank you again for inviting me to be a part of your historic celebration. Congratulations on 175 years of service to Atlanta, and my best wishes for your congregation’s continued success, for generations to come.