Come Home, Atlanta!

Recorded May 20, 1973

For about three months I have been trying not to preach this sermon, and then, it seems as though I must preach it.

If you care to follow as I read the text, I ask you to join me and read in your Bibles from the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. It’s a familiar story. Every veteran church member could virtually give it by memory.

Beginning in the 11th verse, the familiar story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father:

Luke 15:11-24

11 And he said, “A certain man had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.’ And he divided unto them his living. 13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together and took his journey into a far country and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in the land and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his field to feed swine. 16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat, and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father and say unto him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, 19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son. Make me as one of thy hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring hither the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and be merry: 24 For this, my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”

Cities have personalities. I don’t know what your favorite city is in the world, but whatever it may be, you’re aware that it has its personality. And the chambers of commerce of each city understand this, and the poets and the advertising people are able to put it into proper focus. Chicago was called by Carl Sandberg, “The Hog Butcher to the World.” Chicago is rough, hard and rich. Then there’s stately San Francisco, which must be the jewel of the west. It’s a beautiful city. It is majestic and cultured and looks like a grand lady, presiding over all that area.

And if you’ve been to London, you’re aware that London is proper and austere. There’s something about London that makes you stand a little straighter because it’s just that proper. I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but everyone who talks about Las Vegas says it's just purely unreal. And I don’t think any of our Baptist people have been there either. But from what I’ve read, it’s simply unreal.

And then there’s Tokyo. Tokyo is so large that cab drivers don’t even know what’s on the other side of their district. And if you take them out of their particular district they themselves get lost. It’s endlessly organized, tight groups compacted together and everyone moving, almost in lockstep. They have to do it, because if they don’t, they’ll be disorganized right out of the entire Japanese economic structure.

Then there’s Bangkok. I’ve often wondered about Bangkok. It seems as though when you’re in Bangkok, it’s going to disintegrate right out from under you. You feel like you’re standing on top of a giant ice cream cone and it’s going to crumble, right where you are.

Or Beirut. Now Beirut’s a great city if it survives its governmental difficulties, and it’s always ready to make a dollar. And you feel as though everybody is ready to change a dollar or to make a dollar, or to do whatever is necessary for it.

And then there’s stately, majestic Jerusalem. As Beirut is ready to make a dollar, you get the feeling, somehow in Jerusalem that they, too, would make a dollar. But while they’re doing it they’re going to worship along the way.

Or there’s Nineveh of the Old Testament, ready to repent. Nineveh doesn’t always have the kind of reputation we think of all through the Old Testament, but when old Jonah got there and started preaching on the outskirts of Nineveh, great things began to happen and Nineveh came to her knees and repented.

There’s Nineveh, ready to repent, but the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were just ready for anything.

Now we come to our great city. And this is why I say what I say today with such pain, because I love this city. I love Atlanta for what she has been. I love her past. We were the first city in the South ever to have an urban renewal project. Sherman came through and burned us down, and we just built right back. Marvelously situated, this great city of ours. It’s rich and young and inexperienced and was too busy to hate. We’ve pulled ourselves out of what must have been one of the greatest debacles any city ever went through 100 years ago. This great city, that was not going to get trapped in the provincialism of the old South, this city that was going to take the best out of our heritage and put it out to the place where it could grow and become the best in the nation.

This is a great city and I love it. I cannot think of a city in this world that’s more beautiful and that I love more than Atlanta. I love Atlanta so much that I want to live in the city of Atlanta. I love Atlanta so much that there are days that I stand on the street corner and just breathe in — well, I try to breathe in — the air as I stand there. It’s fun to go to town and just see the city as it goes by, and to feel the pulse of it. It’s fun sometimes, just to get caught out in the traffic and to understand that there are a lot of people who want to live here. If it wasn’t such a great city, there wouldn’t be so many people trying to be on the same, narrow expressway all at the same time.

I love this city. It’s a city that determined that it wasn’t going to get boxed up in the middle 1950s with a lot of things that are out of date and unreal. And it decided that it would take its best assets. its great location, its marvelous climate, and take itself as a distribution center, and began to do the best it could with it. It’s a model of what ought to be done with a city, in some ways. I love Atlanta. I don’t say that as an oratorical flourish, I say it because the spirit, the feeling of this city is something that’s beautiful. It’s something that’s worth keeping, it’s something that’s worth having. It’s a great city.

Now, I know that a great many of the people that belong to our church, and who are here today, do not live within the corporate limits of the city of Atlanta, but let’s face it, I don’t care if you live in darkest Alpharetta, or way out Forest Park, you’re a part of Atlanta. Somehow, what happens inside the corporate limits of Atlanta is going to affect you in Roswell, or wherever it is you may be living. Little Douglasville is not going to be delivered from all that happens inside of great Atlanta. Atlanta has a way of dominating — its shadow is all over the entire area here — and we’re all wrapped up together. A governmental boundary does not mean that Atlanta doesn’t influence where you are, because you would not be living where you are, you would not be in this region, probably, if it was not for the pulsating beat of this great city, Atlanta.

Atlanta is ripe, Atlanta is rich, Atlanta is eligible, and so many people have come to this city to make their fortune. Every week they come in from Mount Moriah, Mount Carmel, Mount Calvary and Hahira. Every week they troop in from Ludowici and wherever it may be, they come to the city. I’m calling your hometowns, I know — Arabi and all the rest, they come in there. And when you take a group like this and look at us closely, you have to admit that most of us are only half a generation out of the all-day meeting and dinner on the grounds. We may look Atlanta, we may talk Atlanta. we may dress Atlanta, and we may have that sort of sophistication that comes from two weeks and a big charge account at Rich’s, but whatever it may be, whatever it may be, we’re still people down under the core.

Now, as I look at this city, I want to be perfectly candid with you. I’m personally, within my own life, having a lover’s quarrel with it. Now, when you love somebody, you can quarrel with them, and when you love something, like a city, you can quarrel with it. And down in my heart, I have a lover’s quarrel going on, right now, and I think many of us do, if we scratch ourselves very deeply.

I think the city of Atlanta is somewhat like that story I read a moment ago. Let me give it to you in outline briefly. The boy came to his father — the youngest son — and said, “I’m tired of living on this farm. It’s too tightly organized. It’s too provincial. I’m leaving.” And so he took his inheritance and went off into the far country. When he got off into the far country, he spent his money liberally — that’s what the prodigal means, one who spends all without stopping to remember what his resources and roots are. When he ran out of money and he had run out of capital, he found himself working for a man as keeper of pigs. And he ended up being so hungry that he had to eat the very food of the pigs.

One day, he came to himself and said, “In my father’s house are servants that do better than I’m doing here. I’m going to get up and I’m going to go back and I’m going to see my father. I’m going to make myself as a hired servant in my father’s house.” So he came to himself and got up and went home, expecting to come home as a beaten child, only to be received by his father, and to be given all thy symbols of sonship — the sandals and the ring and the robe — and to be received back with great rejoicing into his father’s house.

I believe today, as I look at our city, that we, like the Prodigal, have left our father’s home. I think we need to take a good, hard look at where we are and what we’ve done, and I think that in our journey to be uptown, and our journey to be like New York, and our journey to take our place in the middle of what may be the nation and the world, we have left our father’s home. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the journey to become strong and rich. There’s nothing wrong with the journey to flex muscles and to live at the top of your talent and to reach as far as you can. But when you do this at the price of sacrificing your own integrity, something begins to happen.

Our father’s home was rich and secure, and Atlanta is rich in talent and natural resources, and it’s been rich in imagination through the years. We have been rich in religious tradition, rich in morality and rich in culture, but somehow in our desire to become uptown, and our desire to become big-time, and our desire to move into the strata of major cities, we have had a tendency to sell our heritage out. We have taken our heritage and left home and we’ve tried to use it to do everything we can.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of people telling me that we want to be another New York. Anyone who’s been to New York recently must shudder to hear that. And we have tried very hard to become an international city and a mecca for merchandise. In order to do this, some sophomores within our own structure many years ago determined the way to do it was to bring in new gods for us to worship. Now, whether major league sports are right or wrong, I’m not going to judge, but when you put it against what needs to be done you have to say that people somehow are placing the wrong emphasis on the wrong place. We have found new gods to worship and we have built stadiums and Omnis as temples in which to worship them.

We not only have come to the place where we have found false gods to worship — and the Atlanta paper last fall ran a special page where they talked about a Sunday afternoon trip down to the stadium and they talked about it as the early morning worship service. And in the article, they admitted that it has become a substitute for worship. Whether football is right or wrong, I’m not judging, but people who worship that kind of thin god are people who are going to have lives that fall apart.

And then we said we want to be free, we want to be guiltless, and so on every corner of our corner we’ve been able to put up a pornography store so that sleazy people can slick and slide in and find what they want there. And we’ve been able to find it in our liberality and in our liberation. We have been delivered into a new kind of scripture — the scripture of pornography that seems to be pushed into the minds of many people.

And then we have found ourselves having in this new religion a new communion, brought about by hard liquor and the sale of drugs, up and down the streets and in our schools all over the metropolitan area. Oh, and we didn’t want to have roadside honky-tonks any longer either. After all, we’re more sophisticated than to spend our time in the old roadside honky-tonks. And so we put more carpet in and more paint and we created new uptown night clubs all over the place that seem to give us a sense of sophistication in the midst of all our anxiety.

Then our crime rate. The crime rate is on the rise. Assault is everywhere. Five years ago, someone told me about living in another city on the east coast where they had to put three locks on their doors at night and turn the radio on when they left the house so that a criminal would think, if they broke it, that someone was there. I said to myself, as I breathed a prayer, “Thank God we’re not that way in Atlanta.” The other day, without thinking, I left the house. I locked the bolt, I locked the regular lock and I turned the deadbolt. And when I came in later for the evening, I put the lock and the deadbolt on and the chain across the door, and I thought to myself, “I’ve done the same thing.” We have a radio. If you want to break into my house, I’m always here at 11 and 7:30 on Sunday, go on. It’s been done. I have a radio I turn on so all the bad guys will think that somebody’s there. Of course, if they’re Baptist bad guys they’ll know where I am.

It’s going on everywhere now. We have debates in the paper as to whether the mafia is in our city. I don’t know whether the mafia is in our city, but if they’re not they will be soon because of the kind of money that has been attracted here. There was a time when your wife going over to the grocery store to buy groceries or to go mail a letter was a common occurrence. Now, after the early evening, no man in his right mind would let his wife drive a car even to the finest shopping centers of our city. I’ve even heard ladies say they’re going to quit wearing their rings now because they do not want to jeopardize their own life by wearing them.

Not only that, these things are out on the surface that we can see, but I see as I deal with people, person after person cascading, washing up on the shores of our city, who are empty people with broken lives. While I’m at it and getting all this out at the same time, and you’re hearing — I hope — against the structure of love — I’ve come to the place where I have no more patience with intergovernmental rivalry in our city and in our section. There’s no more patience with it. It’s like the ship going down and the captain and crew standing around, debating about whether the pumps ought to be manned. And I want to get it all out, so I’m going to say it, I have not yet seen a candidate for mayor of our city that can lead us out of the kind of far country that we’re in.

When you come to the place that you wonder what’s happening to us, you have to hear the scripture of the Old Testament that says, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We’ve come to the place where we’ve taken up residence in the far country. This has not been pushed on us by outside influences, but it’s been pushed on us because we, in our mad desire to get rich and wealthy, have been willing to sacrifice everything and everybody. We’ve become a city where you can build a skyscraper and everybody says how great it is. You can build a humble church to worship God and somehow you pick up the ridicule of the community.

We’ve become a city that worships big money and hates big religion. We’ve become a city that somehow has lost its real understanding of human values. We have gone to the hog trough, or we’re on our way to it if we don’t watch out. Let me tell you, I believe that in 30 years, if we don’t turn around, we can become the same as Newark, and Peachtree can become a street filled with broken windows and broken glass. And it can become as desolate and deserted as some areas in the upper eastern part of the United States, where real estate developers have completely abandoned it because it cannot be developed.

If you say it can’t happen here, then turn your mind back 30 years. Those of you who are longtime residents of Atlanta, turn your mind back 30 years. Thirty years ago, would you have believed that the expressways, which were not even dreamed of then, would be too small for our city? Thirty years ago, would you have believed that this great city would have a high crime rate? Thirty years ago, would you have believed there would be drugs all over the school system of the city of Atlanta? Would you have believed it 30 years ago? No, you would have said, “It’s preposterous!” Then don’t you come to the place today where you can’t have your imagination shaken out from under its lethargy.

And, if you’ve moved out to some quiet little suburb, far from here, let me tell you you’re not safe there either. Sin does not stop at the corporate city limits of Atlanta. Sin is going to be wherever people are. Your children are no more safe there than they are in the shadow of some of our great institutions here. It’s going to be everywhere. Three years ago I spoke at one of the churches out on the north end of our city, out in the growing edge. And the church was filled with people, runaways from the city of Atlanta. “We’re going to get out of Atlanta because we can’t stand what’s going on there.” And I said to them with some sort of glibness, “Cheer up. It will be there in two years. It’s coming here and there’s no hiding place.” I spoke to one of those people the other day and they said, “You’re right. The wave has gotten to us now.”

What I want you to her is that we are standing in the midst of a crisis in a city we love, in a place we love, where people have resources and talents and abilities. But we’re still in a crisis. And you can be sure that principalities and powers will take all the energy in this great city and try to divert the energies of this city over to the hog trough. Let your mind run. Do you want Peachtree Street to become a crawling slum? Let your mind run. Do you want people to evade our city? There are men in this room today that have received transfers to Newark and New York and Chicago and turned it down because you wouldn’t raise your family there.

Let me tell you this, you take a personal survey, as I have done, of every city in this country that has had major league athletics. Now, I go to the ballgames. And then you measure that against the church life and it becomes a competition. And the spirit of the city is sucked out. Its sucked out. If we got as much free publicity for this church as any of the ball teams in this city gets, we couldn’t contain the people. By the grace of God we’re going to make it because we have the grace of God.

But sometimes I wonder when people are going to wake up and remember private corporations do not deserve that much free publicity. And the people of God aren’t the only ones now who see to understand what the real values are here. I’m not angry, I’m hurt. I’m not mad, I’m crying. I’ve seen too many broken lives. I’ve seen too many kids who’ve been ruined. I’ve seen too many who’ve had their minds stolen. I’ve seen too many lives that have been dashed. I’ve seen too many men that couldn’t handle success, and I’ve seen too many women who couldn’t handle leisure. And after a while, you come to the place where you feel like you’re a drowning man and you need to cry out.

I don’t say this as Amos, who came into the great city of Samaria and prophesied against the city and left. I say it as one who lives here, on a busy corner. And I’ve opted to live inside the city limits because I love it. But I’m saying to you Atlanta, come home! Come home, Atlanta! Ge out of the hog trough and come home! Come home from your sin. Come home from your irreligion. Come home from your mysticism. Come home from your semi-religion. Come home! Oh Atlanta, we stand as a father, looking down that road saying, “Come home!”

Oh listen, if this could be the year that this city would determine that her influence was going to be spiritual, things would begin to happen. Atlanta needs to get up out of the hog trough. Atlanta needs to stand up and say, “Begone!” to the pornographer. “Begone!” with those who steal our children. We need to look the government straight in the eye and say, “Straighten up or get out!”

We need to come to the place where we’re going to stand for righteousness. And a few of you are going to have to determine that you’re going to come to church every week, instead of every other week. And a few are going to have to determine that you’re going to invest your resources here instead of every kind of lunatic thing that comes. And some of you are going to have to start seeing the church as being something more than a power base for your own business and you’re going to have to start seeing it as the people of God.

Come home Atlanta! Get up out of the hog trough and come home. Come home and be the city you ought to be. Come back to the roots. Come back to where you are. Come back in your heart! Already I’ve heard the cynicism in our city, “Oh, (Billy) Graham’s coming to Atlanta to get rich.” Let me tell you this, we have one chance. I believe God has given this city another chance. God has given this city a chance to repent. We’ve used our stadium for everything else, now let’s use it for God. God has given the city a chance to repent. The day is coming.

Repentance, as you know, is turning around — going in this direction, and determining that’s the wrong direction and turning around. It’s determining that we’re going to take the energy, the wealth, the talent and all the national prestige we have, and we’re going to lay it on the line for God. And it’s not going to happen from the top down, it’s going to happen here, at this level. Do you know who determines what is shown on television? You do! Do you know who determines who goes into office? You do! Do you know who determines whether something succeeds or fails? You do! It’s not some impersonal power that puts it in here, we do! I’ve watched them at the television station. One letter coming into the television station and they all get around it to read it. “Oh, we can’t do that because public opinion won’t let us do it.”

Listen, we’ve sold out. The man in the pew has sold out. The man on the street has sold out. The man who sees himself as being ordinary has sold out. Hear me. Joshua stood before the people of God and he said to them, “I don’t care what you’re going to do, but for me and my house, we’re going to serve the Lord.” And I’m saying to the people today, in the name of God almighty, come home! Take your stand with God. Take the chaff out of your life.

Mr. (Oliver) Wilbanks read the scripture a moment ago that said to us quite clearly, “If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves and seek my face, and pray, then I will heal their land. I will hear their prayer.” Come home, Atlanta. You don’t judge me today. You can’t judge me today. I simply come with something that has been burning me up inside for a good many months, and I hope, by the grace of God, it judges you. There’s no place to run, there’s no way to hide. The only thing you can do is fall on your knees and pray that God will deliver you.

Do you remember that time in the Old Testament when Jonah went into the city of Nineveh and began to preach? The word of God went up and down the streets of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh fell upon their knees in repentance. Do you remember that? Do you remember also another story in the Old Testament where the word of God was spoken in the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? A few righteous people were found, but the city would not repent.

I pray to God, not that we be delivered back to the provincialism of the ’30s and ’40s, and Atlanta cannot be now, ever again, a simple little crossroads railroad town. I pray to God, this day, that Atlanta will take who it is and where it is and put it at God’s altar. Let God let it be the new Jerusalem. This is the direction. Come home, Atlanta. Get up out of the farmer’s pig stye and come home. Your father, who gave you your heritage, is ready to receive you unto himself. Come home! Come home!

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)