Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Something old, something new . . . ", July 24, 2011

Texts: Romans 8:26-39 (sighs too deep for words), Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (five more parables)

The old Victorian saying, "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue," directs a bride on what to wear on her wedding day. The saying came to my mind to this week not only because I have been speaking with the two couples at whose weddings I will preside here in Borderlands in August -- Amanda Vancuren and Jerrod Bartlett of Weyburn in Coronach on August 13 and Patrick Disney and Sarah Corcoran in Wesley United in Rockglen on August 27 -- but moreso because of the passage I just read from Matthew.

Jesus ends the passage by telling his students that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." So what might this new and old treasure refer to, and who are the scribes who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven?

A commentary that I read this week on this passage said that the old treasure could refer to Holy Scripture and other traditions of our church. The new treasure could refer to our conversations about how to function as a church today. And "every scribe"could refer to you and me -- ordinary people trying to follow Jesus.

This morning, I reflect on how we might encourage life-giving conversations -- new treasure -- amongst ourselves and with our neighbours.

The five short parables that Jesus presents to his students in our reading form part of our old treasure -- scripture written almost 2,000 years ago, which we have been hearing and discussing ever since. But when Jesus first said those words, they were new and startling. They form a part of the conversation Jesus had with his followers. And they were probably controversial and difficult words back then.

What is the Kingdom of God like, Jesus says? It is like tiny mustard seeds, or yeast put into bread, or treasure hidden in a field and then stolen by a passerby, or a pearl of great value that a merchant sacrifices everything to possess.

[The final parable about a net filled with good and bad fish is a variation on the parable of good and bad seed from last week's reading. And like last week's reading, this final parable only occurs in Matthew, and it is one of the places when Jesus makes predictions of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the furnace of fire, so I will leave it aside this week.]

Jesus' parables probably sounded strange and provocative to those who first heard them. Mustard was not a cash crop in the First Century. Instead, it was an unwanted and pesky weed. And yet Jesus said it was like the Kingdom of God. Yeast, although required in raising bread and fermenting beer, was a symbol of corruption and decay among First Century Jews. And yet Jesus said it was like the Kingdom of God. Jesus says that treasure hidden in a field by its owner and then stolen by a passerby is like the Kingdom of God. Really? Is Jesus suggesting that we steal? Hmm. Finally, a merchant finds a pearl of great value and sells all he owns to posses it. Merchants were often disliked and distrusted by ordinary poor people in Jesus' time. And yet, Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a pearl of great value for which a merchant sacrifices all his wealth.

In his context almost 2000 years ago, Jesus' metaphors about God's kingdom probably struck his hearers as odd and new. Back then, these metaphors were new treasure that Jesus offered them against the backdrop of the old treasure of Hebrew Scripture, Jewish religion, and commonsense wisdom. In the light of those old traditions, Jesus' parables ran against the stream.

What would equivalent metaphors be for us today? That God's realm is like a rich bank executive who falls in love with a group of disadvantaged children and who sells all his wealth to live with them and help them overcome their poverty? Or that God's realm is like a person who illegally copies a software application and gives it to his family and friends free of charge? Or that God's realm is like a flooding river in a spring and summer of weird weather that disrupts the lives of those who are unfortunate to live along its banks? Or that God's realm is like the idea of equality between men and women that grows like a gracious and subversive weed among young people and leads them to overthrow an authoritarian government?

Well, I doubt if any of these metaphors are adequate echoes for the parables that Jesus presented in today's reading. But I do hope that they give a sense of how Jesus' words, which are now part of our ancient and sacred tradition, were new and disturbing elements in the conversation he had with his friends 2,000 years ago.

One area where new and old treasure rub against each other in our church life is music.  I love singing hymns and anthems in worship services. So when I surprised myself by returning to church 10 years ago, singing in the choir at Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto helped to cement my return.

My return to church was a homecoming. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, had been a United Church minister, so I grew up in church and sang in the junior choir. When I joined Kingston Road United, I loved singing many of the hymns that I had learned as a child. I was also glad that new hymns had become part of worship in the intervening decades and some of them have now become my favourites.

My return to church was helped by the presence of old hymns and other traditional aspects of worship, and also by the new elements that had been incorporated into church life, such as new hymns.

For today's service, I chose three hymns. The first one we sang, "God Is Here," is a 20th Century hymn. The music was composed in 1905 by a Welsh composer and the words were written by a British Methodist minister in 1978. So while it is not an ancient hymn, neither is it very contemporary either.

The hymn of response that I chose for after the sermon, "God of Still Waiting,"is one of the new hymns from the "More Voices" hymnbook. I discovered this hymn as I prepared Advent services as a student intern in Alberta in 2009. The words and music of this hymn were both composed in the year 2000. And although it is not a particularly "modern-sounding" hymn, it is not well known yet in most congregations. I hope you will enjoy learning and singing it today.

And our closing hymn, "Be Thou My Vision,"is an old favourite in every way. The words were originally written in Irish, perhaps as long as 1500 years ago. The tune is also ancient: a traditional Irish melody. So not only has this hymn been a favourite one in many churches over the last 200 years, its roots are very ancient indeed.

Three hymns: one from a few generations ago, one quite recent, and one very ancient. My hope is that reflecting on our hymns today will help us think about elements in worship that represent both old and new treasure.

Church is one of the most traditional parts of our culture. This fact helps give church great depth, soul and trustworthiness. But tradition can sometimes get in the way of talking to each other about what is relevant in our lives today. Our souls yearn for tradition. But out spirits reach out for what is new, exciting and important today. So how can our spirits learn to sing a new song in the light of our ancient traditions?

I am not sure that I know how to best encourage congregational conversation. I do like to talk, as you have probably already guessed. But I am unsure of the path that leads from church as a one-way monologue by me to church as a conversation among equals. Nevertheless, I can see a few signposts on this path. I look forward to my first meetings with committees like Ministry and Personnel and Worship, and to my first Central Board meeting in September. These meetings will be occasions where I can learn more about the history, traditions, plans, and visions of the three congregations in Borderlands. And they will also be places where I will listen more than speak.

And then there are all the one-one-one conversations I look forward to having with each of you. One of the true privileges of ministry is the chance to share with members of the church community, both in ordinary times, and in times of mourning or celebration.

Another thing that I believe will help keep the conversation going are small-groups such as the ones that Kevin and previous ministers organized for book study and other types of sharing. I hope to start such small groups in September . . .

The Christian Church has an unbelievably rich tradition of sacred traditions and writings. And to bring this tradition to life, we search for what is relevant today through life-giving conversations.

I don't come this morning with easy answers. But I do have confidence in our treasured heritage as found, for instance, in the beloved passage heard today from Romans. While there is enough material in this passage for 10,000 sermons at least, to close I will read some brief excerpts from today's passage from by St. Paul:

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God . . . If God is for us, who is against us? . . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all the world, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

So with confidence found in, and given to us by old treasure such as Scripture, our new treasure of ongoing conversations will continue into the future.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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