Nehemiah 8 & Luke 4
We must be diligent and discerning in what to keep doing, and what to stop doing so we may be open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in our churches.
State of the Church
Scripture Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 8-10 & Luke 4: 14-21
January 27, 2019
Rev. David Ivie, Pastor
FPC Forney Texas
Today the scriptures have two lessons for us, the church—this congregation: The first is: keep doing what you are doing. The second is: stop doing what you are doing. Yes, today, at our annual meeting, we want to discuss the state the church. As we think about where we are as a church First Presbyterian Forney, biblical wisdom teaches us to "keep at it."
And if you want to feel better about the current state of the church in America, take a look at what Jewish leaders like Ezra had to deal with back in the day. Nehemiah is the Governor of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is in shambles. The city had been attacked by foreigners and suffered neglect: the walls are torn down, the people are scattered, their fighting among themselves, and the people have forgotten who they are and to whom they belong.
So Nehemiah begins a restoration project. This is like the TV show: Fixer Upper, except there's no way it could be wrapped up in 30 minutes or an hour. Nehemiah is a man on a mission: He encourages the builders to work without ceasing and rebuild Jerusalem. At the same time, he calls the scattered people to come back home. ("First Return") And the verses we read are the culmination of all the work that has been done. The people gather and Ezra and the priests roll the scrolls and begin reading the law of Moses. The reading lasts all morning long, It had been so long since the community had gathered and it had been so long since they had any since of order that the people were captivated by what they heard. And they realized how far they had wandered they realized they had forgotten so much, they were filled with awe and regret. and they wept.
It was an epiphany in the sense that God was made known to them in a profound way and they were changed. Nehemiah didn't start a new church or completely revamp the order of worship. What he did was far more difficult: he returned the people back to the basic practice of worship and scripture. so in that sense, he was telling the people keep doing what you've always done: gather, worship, center your life on holy scripture. this is what our ancestors did, let us do it too.
This same lesson is found in Luke. Luke tells us that Jesus did not invent new customs or completely break with tradition. The bible tells us that Jesus returned to his hometown in Nazareth, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath, "as was his custom" (v 16) And he stood up and read the scroll that was given to him." Jesus didn't start a new church (at least not yet!) or completely revamp the order of worship. He gathered to worship in the synagogue, and centered his life on scripture. This is what his ancestors had done, and he did it too.
So that is the first lesson for us today, as we think about where we are as a church here in this place. Regardless of what is going on around us, our essential calling hasn't changed in centuries: Keep doing what we have always done. Like our ancestors, like the early church, like the faithful who founded this church in 1872, we are to gather together, worship God, center our lives on scripture, and give thanks to God in every circumstance. The essential functions of the church haven't changed in centuries, and God has sustained us all the way through.
One caveat: we can only keep doing what we are doing if we are doing the right things for the right reasons. Yes, we can be traditional but we cannot become traditionalists. For tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. There is something special about preserving the wisdom of our ancestors, because a lot of what they did still makes sense. So keep doing what you have been doing, as long as it doesn't mean we don't do things because "that's the way we've always done things". As I have posted on our social media we honor tradition without being stuck in the past. We also are to be open to change.
Which leads us to the second lesson for today. Stop doing what you are doing. Yes, we are serious about honoring the past, claiming the best of our tradition. But we are also called to embrace the future, and to be open to change. And we see this also in the book of Nehemiah. The story continues that as the people were filled with awe and regret, they began to weep, for they realized that were prone to wander and forgetfulness. But Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites told the people: v. 9 "do not mourn or weep, for this is a day holy to the Lord your God." Instead of weeping, this is a time for celebration. Throw a party: eat the fat, drink sweet wine, and share with those who have nothing. "do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." v.10
Stop what you are doing; do something different. Stop crying. Rejoice.
And the same for Luke. Jesus did more than read scripture. Because then he said: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." v. 21 So this was an epiphany in the sense that Jesus was being revealed, made known, as the one who would bring about God's mission to all. This is a startling new revelation, and radical new understanding that changes everything for us and for the world.
If we want to stand around mourning and weeping because we are not where we used to be, that is fine. Many churches do just that. But the instruction is to stop crying and rejoice instead. If we want to gather and worship and read scriptures as if it is a nice story about something that happened a long time ago, then that is just fine. Many churches do just that. But the revelation of Jesus as the light and hope of the world is all around us. God is always up to something new. and we probably won't hear it if we're not 1)steeping in scripture AND 2) searching the world around us for the new thing God is doing.
Twelve years ago this church made the bold decision to pick up and move out here to a new property and new location. that says a lot about our ability to be open to change. I'd like to be able to give you concrete plan on what to do, when to do, and how to do it. Many churches do just that. But we know that the spiritual life is not programmatic. And church life isn't either. We can set a vision but the vision is out there on the horizon. Goals and plans for a rich church life are more varied, more diffuse. One set of guidelines isn't going to speak to everyone in the same way.
For example, A year ago I said something to the effect that we have been doing Blessings & Backpacks for 8 years and maybe now God has something else in store for us. and it was about that time that Dana Curry called us to see about helping Forney ISD with school uniforms. Of course I spent a good deal of the summer wondering just what God had gotten us into. ha! Now we have started a new non-profit Forney Community Ministries. In that non-profit we have excellent partners and greatly increased our public profile. Through FCM we are meeting a need, and serving our community. When I gave that sermon a year ago, I had a vision but not a set plan. Never in my wildest could I have imagined what transpired. but what actually happened is so much better than we could have asked or imagined; we serve that kind of God, as it says in Ephesians 3.
As we look into 2019, I cannot give you detailed plans and step by step program for spiritual growth or church vitality. But I can tell you that we must be ever diligent and discerning. For the scriptures teach us:
Keep doing what you are doing, and stop doing what you are doing. Amen.