Monday, July 31, 2023

Treasures New and Old


Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Proper 12 / Year A

The American minister Robert Fulghum made quite a sensation when he published a book of short essays in 1986.  The piece which gives the book its title is called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  It offers folksy wisdom such as play fair, say you are sorry when you hurt somebody, and flush.  It still resonates with us today because we recognize how our lives are built on the foundational truths and values we learned at a young age. 

Those kindergarten lessons are still in us, but we are no longer in kindergarten, are we!  Our life’s project is to apply these basics to an ever-changing, ever-evolving world.  I think this is what Jesus means when he says “the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”  We may be doing new things, but they are rooted in old values. 

Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has been reminding us for almost a decade, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus.”  This is the old, old truth.  What is new about it is his emphasis how God loves everyone – no exceptions.  There are folks who, for various reasons, have been marginalized by our society for generations; who have been told because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their gender identity or their economic status or their lack of education or a host of other different reasons they are second class citizens and thus are less deserving of love and respect.  What is new – rejecting this kind of thinking – is rooted in what is old – Jesus calls his followers to love without limitations or preconditions.

Treasures new and old.  I don’t have to tell you there are some folks who just want the old treasure served up in the way it has always been.  They label what is new as “woke”, which strikes me as an odd term because the opposite (it seems to me) is “asleep”, not exactly a positive virtue.  Every day the governor of Florida picks another societal target to attack in his campaign to make his state the place where woke goes to die.  It all strikes me as very mean, petty, and pointless, except that it pleases the people who treasure only the old.

Russell Moore, a prominent Baptist minister and theologian, cautions against this.  In his newly released book, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, Moore cautions about the dangers of nostalgia and a desire to return the church to a supposed “golden age.”  He notes surveys which indicate white evangelicals are more likely than other religious groups and the general population to embrace tenets and thinking of white supremacy.  He also links religious nostalgia with foot-dragging on sexual-abuse cover-ups and the expulsion of churches too affirming of role of women in leadership. 

The treasure of what is old can become toxic if it is not accompanied by a treasure that is new.  Nostalgia”, writes Moore, “—especially of the sort wielded by demagogues and authoritarians—cannot protect religious faith, because it uses religion as a tool for worldly ends, leaving a spiritual void.”  He states it can only be helpful if you understand it to be memories, not blueprints.

Most mainline churches no longer desire to get back to the 1950’s.  We know it isn’t going to happen.  But we are still nostalgic… for February 2020.  “If only we could get back to the way things were before the pandemic,” we say.  There isn’t a day which goes by here at St. Paul’s where I do not long for something we have lost or left behind – a member who no longer attends, a ministry we no longer staff, a program we no longer offer.  What I notice is the more I look back with longing for the old treasure, the less I am able to see and appreciate the new treasures emerging in our common life.

What Russell Moore writes to his fellow Evangelicals applies equally to us:

“Those who wish to hold on to the Old Time Religion must recognize that God is doing something new.  The old alliances and coalitions are shaking apart.  And the sense of disorientation, disillusionment, and political and religious ‘homelessness’ that many Christians feel is not a problem to be overcome but a key part of the process...  [A] pilgrimage cannot start with a road map of certainty but must begin with the cry of faith that says, like the noble disciple Thomas wrongly labeled as a doubter, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’”

Every week or so someone asks me if I think we will ever reopen the Food Pantry.  “I don’t think so,” I reply.  The Food Pantry isn’t something we learned in kindergarten, to use Fulghum’s analogy.  What we learned in kindergarten was to connect with and care for our neighbors.  The Food Pantry was a fantastic way to do this when we did it.  Now we connect with and care for our community in new ways – partnering with ForKids and the Suffolk Community Outreach Center being just two new manifestations of our old treasure.  More new treasure is on the horizon.

I feel the same way about our worship life, our fellowship, and our formation programs.  These are core elements of our common life – the old treasures – and they are being expressed in new and faithful ways.  As householders in this place known as St. Paul’s, may we continue to bring out treasures new and old, for this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.