Below is the full text of the message "No Longer and Not Yet" based on Matthew 24:13-24 preached at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City on April 13, 2008. It is written to speak to a great congregation that stands on the threshold of an opportunity to reach across generational and worship boundaries to act as "family" one to and for another. I typically do not post sermons but am posting this one the request of many who were in the congregation when the message was preached.
“No Longer and Net Yet”
Matthew 24: 13-24
Matthew 24: 13-24
For those who are new to First Baptist, you should know that we do not traditionally ask the choir to leave the choir loft and join the congregation. But today is a different kind of day. It is a morning that I asked the First Baptist family to gather to hear a special message. It is offered not because this church has an issue that troubles it, but just the opposite, this message comes because this church has the opportunity to be the kind of church that can cross boundaries for the sake of the Gospel. This is a great church. With that said, I claim the following verbiage with great care. I believe that God has given me a message for our church family for this moment. I have to confess that I normally become suspicious when I hear someone talk about a word from God. It seems that people use this phrase to say something they want to say, without having to worry about defending it or explaining it. It seems often to be a tool for manipulation or to leverage religious guilt. None of these are the case for this morning’s message. It does not hold a dark pronouncement nor offers grand plans or mystical visions. It is a word of hope and challenge for a church in transition. It is a word shaped to speak to the heart.
II. No Longer
The message is born in the story of the Road to Emmaus found in Luke 24: 13-24. You heard it read from the New International Version by Brian Harvey in the beginning moments of our worship and you can find it in print in the first section of our worship guide this morning. Hear a bit of a different slant on the passage from Eugene Peterson’s interpretative translation, the Message. The first half of our passage reads like this; That same day two of them were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. They were deep in conversation, going over all these things that had happened. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who he was. He asked, "What's this you're discussing so intently as you walk along?" They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend. So we see two men were walking down a well worn road talking with one another about the trauma they had witnessed, the friend that they had lost, and their uncertainty about their future. They were lost between a part of their life that could be no longer and their future that still seemed so fuzzy, their place not yet clear. We will hear later that they had heard word of Jesus’ resurrection, but they knew that no matter what happened that they could never go back to the way it was. Jesus joins them in the walk, but they are so caught up in their emotions and their fears they fail to realize who they are walking with.
If we are not careful, their story can become our story. This Road to Emmaus story provides a powerful symbolic picture of a church that is caught between a past that is no longer, and a future that is not yet – but in the struggle sometimes miss the movement of God in their midst. The question is whether our church will be one of them. The reality of this moment is that whether we like it or not, the church can never be again what it was in previous era. It can never again be the kind of church it was when Hobbs or Garrison lifted their voices from this platform. For some, we must acknowledge that this is a point of grief. For you these were grand eras where the church thrived, where worship sounded just like you liked, and where this church has a place in community and culture that brought a sense of pride. For many these were grand days. For others gathered in this room they were different days. It was an era when race and gender minimized the place and voice of many. Our culture and community has changed – some for the good and other for evil, but we can not go back, no matter how much we might like to.
The larger Church has chosen to deal with this reality in several different ways. The price for these choices has been a growing fragmentation of the Church. Hard-line traditional churches choose to ignore the changes around them have become the almost exclusive domain of the "Builder" or "Greatest Generation." Some have survived this decision, but many have paid the price. I was candidly saddened and disturbed by the results of some of the research I did this week. It revealed a long list of once great churches that once graced our cities that have faded away or simply fallen into irreparable disrepair. They are bolstered with news for a recent Lifeway report that the unchurched prefer gothic churches with steeples 2 to 1 over more modern structures, but fail to read that most church with a gothic design are in decline. They fail to realize that it is people that reach people, not buildings. They clung to what was with such fervor that they failed at becoming what they were called to be.
No better has been the answer of the mega church and/or the contemporary church. They have become the almost exclusive domain of the "Baby Boom" generation. They asked those of the earlier generation to step aside and to forget their traditions. Sadly they propagated a worship heresy that is evident and prevalent in church culture today. They helped to shape a culture where worship is an individual act focused on one’s experience rather than a corporate experience focused on directing our worship to God and for God’s sake. Individual Christians gather from their different homes and different lives in the same place, at the same time, and sing the same songs, in acts of simultaneous individual worship. People’s hearts are focused on what they hear and on how they feel. It seems that everyone one worries about whether it is our kind of music and if the sermon pleases our ears, but fail to consider what we have brought to God as our act of worship. This approach to worship pleases crowds, but fails to build community. They have clung to what was “new” with such fervor that they failed to become what they are called to be.
The third choice has been the development of the Emergent church movement, which has become the almost exclusive domain of the postmodern generation. Candidly, this is a model that probably only a handful in this church has read much about or has worship with, but is it is the place of growth in the American Protestant church. They rejected everything that looked like or acted like the institutional church because they wanted more. They did not care about the coat and tie, they rejected the gender leadership boundaries, and decided it is not about the music, but rather it is about a sense of community. In the processes they left behind the legacy of faith the church could offer. They have clung to a sense of their own community with such fervor that they have failed to become what they are called to be.
A fourth choice is proclaimed by recent public opinion polls and denominational records. It is the choice to walk away from church. This choice appears to be made by more and more people. Some have been hurt in a church conflict or by a church leader or church friend. Others have decided the church is no longer relevant for their lives. They want to think that they are rising above it all and simply disengage all together. They have clung to their sense of the individuality and their own opinions with such fervor that they have failed to become what they are called to be.
In our effort to the find the church that scratches our worship itch we have failed at the essential task of become the Body. We have fragmented and fractured to the point where the three generations, or more, that walk our streets that claim to share the same faith are rarely in places where they can study, fellowship, or worship together. It is our loss. Each generation brings something to the table that can help to stretch and grow the others. I believe we were intended for more. We are called to be a family of faith that transcends boundaries and unapologetically claim each other as family. We have spent too much time worrying about the style of music, the manner of dress, the time on the watch, how many people are on a committee, and about the gender of the leadership, and too little time focusing our heart and our spirits on what it means to stand in the presence of God.
We have spent too much energy on our wants and failed to care meaningfully for the wants and needs of others. There is no room for finger pointing or blame, it is about all of us stepping forward together. Ultimately, worship is not about us, it is about God. Ultimately being a family of faith requires us to invest so truly in each other’s spiritual journey that we are willing to give each other room to claim the faith expressions that are meaningful in our quest to draw closer to God. A great example of this is the relationship by mother shares with my daughter. There are times that my daughter chooses to do things with my mom, not because the thing they are to do is her favorite thing, but because it gives her a chance to be with her grandmother. There are times that my mother chooses to do things with my daughter to do things, not because the thing they are to do is her favorite thing, but because it gives her the opportunity to spend time with her grand-daughter. They reach across generational bounds because they love each other and are committed to be family to and for each other.
Our church has been given what seems to be a remarkable opportunity to reach across the boundaries and find an authentic sense of community – of family- together. It is one of the few churches I know that could actually succeed. But it will require all of us to actively make choices –and choose words - that draw us toward one another. Hear me, we will remain a traditional church with a traditionally flavored worship service, but we will include a diversity of musical and dramatic elements – like today – for us to speak with meaning to the whole of our church family. But worship is just one place we make choices to be family. For us to be the kind of family we have the opportunity to be then we must choose the Ephesians 4 imagery to be completely humble and gentle; to be patient, bearing with one another in love. We will need to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Last Friday my task as your pastor was to lead us in a time of remembrance and celebration for a wonderful man who was a vital part of our church family. On Monday my task was to stand with a young family in prayer when they shared the difficult medical news on their son. These moments remind us what is important and why we need each other so much. We must claim this same kind of care whether we are talking about life and death issues, worship, leadership decisions, or what color carpet Renew First choose for the hallway outside the Fellowship Hall. I will confess that while I care deeply for you, that my care is for your life and faith, for your heart and walk with God not whether you think there is too much organ, or too little; or too many choruses or too few, or your personal color preferences. You are an amazing church family that serves our community with heart and passions. You are an amazing church family that goes into the world in the name of God. You are an amazing church family that rallies around each other in crisis in ways that move me. We need not be distracted by the insignificant, but must choose to focus on the things of eternal significance. I love you and invite you to love each other with an abounding grace.
III. Not Yet
Back to our passage; just for a moment. Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, "Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn't heard what's happened during the last few days?" He said, "What has happened?" They said, "The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn't find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn't see Jesus." The two on the road has heard about the resurrection and were broken hearted about the kind of relationship with Jesus that they thought was no longer. But they were not prepared for the future that awaited them, the “not yet” in their lives. They did not yet know of what would happen when the Holy Spirit moved in their midst.
I know that when we make changes that it can feel uncomfortable because you wonder what is next. Know that the small changes we have made in worship, and others you may have felt, are made with the intention to make us a stronger family. It is easy for me to tell you not to worry, but just like the two, when we find ourselves on the road from what we have known and is no longer, and we are not yet to place where we are going, we can become confused and concerned. When you come to that moment, know that it is time.
It is time to acknowledge our grief over the past that is no longer that has given us comfort and identity and then release it into God’s arms. It is time for us to acknowledge our apprehension over fuzziness of the future and then discover a sense of faith and trust that will let us trust God with the days that lie before us. It is time to acknowledge our call to be a family of faith that transcends the boundaries and brings a word of love and life, of Jesus, to our community. It is time to seize the opportunity before us and claim anew our place at “the Lighthouse on the Corner.”
I know that the there is discomfort when we find ourselves “no longer and not yet” but that is where we discover that God has been walking with us all along. Look around you, God is walking with us. You see its evidence in so many places in the life of our church. Do our hearts burn because we know that the God of the cross and the empty tomb is on the road with us, summoning us to the future where the Holy Spirit moves? It is time to go forward together boldly for God!
 Toby Perry, “Architectural Prefernces”, released on April 4, 2008 by Baptist Press.