Treasures old and new

This is a sermon for the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 13:52.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus said 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.”  I think it’s a saying which needs some unpacking.

In Jesus’ community, the scribes were learned people, community leaders who were advisors, teachers and lawyers.  As the most literate people in their communities, they had authority because they had knowledge and skill in matters closed to most people.  Their learning was supposed to support the day to day life and the spiritual health of the people, but, being human, in the gospels we sometimes see them portrayed as being caught up in other, more petty, concerns.

But here Jesus is talking about a scribe who’s got it right, a scribe who has been “trained for the kingdom of heaven.”   And it’s an important image because it’s one that we can transfer from his context to our own and apply to the church.  Gone are the days when the parish priest was often the only person in the village who could read and write, but as people who are – or who should be – “trained for the kingdom” we are a community who have knowledge and skill in matters which much of the rest of the world ignores.  And we are called to use that knowledge and skill to support the day to day life and the spiritual health of the community around us; to be “salt and light” to the world.

In my sermon last week I said that we hold in trust for the world around us a precious heritage of Christian faith and practice, and that our task now is to find new ways to help people connect with that heritage in life-giving ways.  That task of finding ways to help people connect with the gospel in life-giving ways is, I think, exactly what Jesus is talking about here as the work of the scribe who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

In some ways, it’s much easier to understand the “what is old” part of our treasure.  We have lots of old things – old Scriptures, old prayers, old forms of architecture and so on – which might help people connect with something of God.  I think, though that for many of us the “what is new” part is more challenging; even more frightening.  Where do we find “what is new”?  And if it is truly new, how can we be confident that it is in keeping with the good news of the kingdom, rather than just the latest fad or bright idea?

These are serious and important questions.  But taking them seriously is no excuse for backing away from the need to be able to bring out “something new.”  So let me give you an example of “something new” which I’ve seen recently, and then think a bit about what principles we might draw from that.

In another parish, I happen to know a woman in the congregation whose professional work is occupational therapy, mostly with children on the autism spectrum.  One day she approached the clergy in that parish and said that she could see a real need; many of the families who were connected to her therapy practice were people of Christian faith, but they were no longer churchgoers; either because their children were not truly welcome in church, or because they simply could not cope with the expectations of them in “normal” church.  So this woman asked, could we do something for these children and their families?  Perhaps a workshop on prayer, designed just for them and their needs?

That led to that woman and one of the clergy in the parish exploring together a variety of forms of prayer, looking particularly for the things which had a sensory aspect, or which involved movement.  What grew out of that is a once-a-month Sunday afternoon service, which incorporates many of those forms of prayer, as well as telling a gospel story using pictures and movement.  To the best of my knowledge, nothing quite like that service has ever been done before; it is truly “something new.”

And looking at that example, I think there are several things to notice about what made it ‘’successful’’ which might translate well to other efforts.

First, this wasn’t something manufactured because a committee sat down and decided that the church needed to do something new, and tried to decide what a good initiative would be.  It came about because someone had a genuine, caring connection outside the church which allowed her to recognise a need, and motivated her to think about how the church might meet that need.  In that sense, it was both an authentic and an organic initiative.

Second, while the form it took was new, it drew on some of the “old things” in the household of God.  Forms of prayer such as dancing to praise music, or painting and drawing, were not invented for this service; they already existed as tried and tested resources in Christian tradition, and were able to be incorporated into this effort with confidence that in their new context they would still offer something of real value.

And third, and I think probably crucially, when the occupational therapist first raised the question, she met with leaders who were open to learning and experimenting, even if they weren’t sure what the outcome was going to be, and who were willing to put in the time and energy to give it a go.

So here we observe some things which answer some of our anxieties about the idea that Jesus might expect us to produce something new.  The ‘’something new’’ which is truly part of the kingdom will come about because we are connected in with the world around us, looking for the needs and opportunities, and open to asking how we might meet them.  The ‘’something new’’ which is truly part of the kingdom will draw on the best of what has gone before, perhaps reshaping it to fit a new context but never thinking that the wisdom and experience of two millennia of Christianity is irrelevant.  And the ‘’something new’’ which is part of the kingdom comes about when the people of God are open to working together, learning, experimenting, and willing to give things the time and energy they need to see if something will take off and grow.

What does that mean for us here?  It means that each of us needs to take seriously our lives away from church – whether that’s in places of work or social circles or hobbies – as places where we might see the needs and the opportunities for God’s kingdom to break in.  It means that we need to be – like the good scribe – trained for the kingdom; with a toolkit stocked with resources drawn from Scripture and the breadth of Christian understanding and practice, so that we can find the right fit between what we have to offer and the needs of the world.  And it means that we need to foster a church culture in which it’s okay to make “out there” suggestions, to try new things, and in which we’re willing to give our time and energy to things which are not yet tried and tested.

I think there’s plenty there for us to think about, as we begin to look ahead to a new season in the parish’s life.  But I would make one last point; we are not alone in this.  God goes with us, as the origin, the centre and the dynamism of what we do; surrounding us on every side, enriching us with every blessing, and rejoicing in all that we do well.


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