Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Treasures Old & New

Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood this?” “Yes,” they said. “Everyone who understands what I say,” he said, “is like a person who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new.”

The old and the new: we in God’s Church live in a dynamic tension between what God has revealed and what God is revealing. We are like trees planted by water, whose roots sink into something set and stable and we are like a leaf in the wind, being blown to a fro by the Holy Spirit. This tension is manifested in many different ways; pleas to post the 10 Commandments on courthouse walls express a longing for olden treasures while calls to allow women a greater role in the life of the Roman Catholic Church cry out for what is new.

Years ago I was at a meeting of clergy gathered to give counsel to a bishop. In attendance was a priest who served in one of the northern Virginia parishes that later would leave the Episcopal Church, attempting to take diocesan property with them. This priest was well-dressed for the meeting, in a suit and tie you might expect to see worn by a highly-placed beltway insider. He sat at a table with his palm-pilot docked on a keyboard, which was cutting edge technology in the day. If there were a GQ Magazine for clergy, he could have been on the cover. When the conversation turned to issues of human sexuality, he criticized the direction the church was headed stating it was trying to be too much like the world. I kept to myself my amusement at the irony, but have always held the moment as an image of how the goodness of newness, like beauty, is often times in the eye of the beholder. My new may not be good to you.

When we talk about the church moving toward what is new and holding on to what is old it is important to make a distinction between method and message; the two are not the same, but both are important. Our methods of communicating the Gospel are closely tied to the culture. After I was newly ordained I attended a seminar designed to train churches how to set up telemarketing phone banks to “get the word out.” Today that approach is passé; swamped by the public’s distaste for it and by the rise of social networks.

Method. I jokingly told Doug Kincaid that he was in charge of organizing a task force to recommend how best to incorporate projection screens in our worship space. Being one of our most conservative members, I don’t expect a report any time soon. Still, we live in a culture that has moved from verbal to visual and this presents both challenges and opportunities for our method of worship.

New methods seem to come and go as the culture moves along, but new messages have a way of causing a stir before they take root. If we were gathered at St. Paul’s 160 years ago, no doubt our pews would be populated with slave-owning parishioners. Any sermon that attempted to repudiate the bible’s apparent validation of this institution would have been round rejected as “new-fangled” hogwash. But today, that “new” teaching is a part of the “old” message entrusted to us.

In his address at diocesan council last February, our bishop said it was time to organize a task force to help our diocese have conversation around issues of sexuality and the blessing of same gender unions. He pointed out that next summer’s General Convention of the entire Episcopal Church will receive liturgies for the blessing of same-gender unions and make some determination about what to do with them. His reasoning for calling together a task force is sound: it is better to go into such a moment informed and in communion with one another than to be blindsided by it.

As I listened to the bishop I agreed with the need for such a group to begin to meet, but thought to myself, “I don’t have a clue what they should do and I feel sorry for whoever is asked to serve on it.” Later that day the bishop approached me and said, “Keith, I need you to do me a favor.” He didn’t even have to say it, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that he wanted me to co-chair the group.

I have spent the better part of my ordained ministry trying to stay out of this “fight,” but I have to tell you it is fascinating reading material and listening to personal stories from all points of view and perspectives because they exhibit the dynamic tension between what God has revealed – the old – and what God is revealing – the new. Our task force meets for just the second time later this week. I have no idea where we are heading or what we will produce, but it feels like one of those good and godly challenges to figure out which treasures of the old should not be discarded and which treasures of the new should not be discounted.

Churches in the reformed tradition have a saying that goes semper reformanda – “always reforming.” It is rooted in a belief that the church can never stand pat. We treasure what is new because the Church is to be more than a museum and more than a historical society. The Church is to be God’s greatest and most effective means of mission; giving shape and substance to God’s love for the world. The Church values what is old because it is impossible to make sense of our on-going story without the perspective and wisdom of the old, old story.

We heard this morning a string of parables calling on us to imagine a new reality called the kingdom of heaven. It is a reality emerging from the rich tradition of Judaism and God’s on-going promise to use that people as witness to divine love. This new kingdom is like something that starts off small, but in the end is very large. It is like leaven which animates dormant flour. It is like discovering an unexpected treasure. It is like stumbling across the one thing you have spent all your life searching for. It is like a very large haul of fish that must be sifted for what is good to eat and what is not. Each image in its own way describes a treasure that is old and a treasure that is new.

Ultimately the kingdom of heaven is God’s dream for creation. It is a dream that we see as if through a mirror dimly. It contains both what it old – what was, is, and always will be – and it contains what is new – what is yet to be seen. It can be a bit scary living in this tension, but it can also be exciting. It is scary when something fundamental to our understanding of God’s dream is challenged. It is exciting when God challenges a wrong we ourselves are powerless to make right.

“Do you understand all of this?” Jesus asked his followers. Doubtless they did and they didn’t. They had an inkling that Jesus was going to turn over some tables, but did not at the time have a full vision of the kingdom of heaven. Holding tight to what we have been given, let us move forward with courage and good will toward all as we lay hold of treasures yet unseen.