Sermon for October 25th, 2020
Matthew 13:51-53 (GNV)
51 Jesus said unto them, Understand ye all these things? They said unto him, Yea, Lord. 52 Then said he unto them, Therefore every Scribe which is taught unto the kingdom of heaven, is like unto an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things both new and old. 53 And it came to pass, that when Jesus had ended these parables, he departed thence.
Jesus & His Pair of Bowls: Treasures New and Old
Please forgive me if I seem a little tired this morning. A few of my neighbors came over yelling loudly and banging on our door at two o'clock this morning. Can you believe it? Two o'clock in the morning? Fortunately for them, I was still up, practicing my bagpipes.
Today is Reformation Sunday--the day when we remember and celebrate the Reformed, Scottish heritage that gave birth to the Presbyterian movement. In some ways, this is for us, what St. Patrick's day is for Irish Catholics: You may not have any particular Scottish ancestry, but if you're a Presbyterian, today you are part of our clan--part of a family and a proud tradition that spans the globe and stretches back for hundreds of years.
Today is also the last sermon in our series on the parables of Jesus, and today's parable, although very short, is my favorite one. In fact, this parable has been, for me, a sort of guiding light throughout my years as a pastor. Today's scripture passage is printed on the back of my business cards, and has been my "life verse" for most of my adult life.
It's a relatively simple parable: First, Jesus compares his followers to scribes (Gr. γραμματεύς), basically those who are educated in the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven, which (as we've seen in all the parables) is shorthand for the teachings of Jesus. Those who have received this education in parables, he says, are like householders (the head of a household) who bring forth from their treasures, or use in their teaching, things both new and old. And then Jesus ends his parables and leaves.
Who are we in this parable? Like last week, there's really only one option, since there's only one character in the parable: We are the ones who have heard the teachings of Jesus; we are the scribes, the educated ones. As we share and spread those teachings, we are the householders who make use of both what is new AND what is old among our treasures.
What are those treasures, new and old? I can't answer that question for you, but I can share a few stories from my own life and experience.
When I was a child--I think from around the time I was eight years old until I was about fifteen, I carried with me everywhere I went a little treasure: It was a photocopied picture that I had taped with scotch tape into a little metal frame about the size of my pocket. It was a picture of a castle in Scotland--Huntingtower castle--that I had been told was the castle of my ancestors in Scotland, the Ruthven clan. For those who don't know this, the name on my birth certificate is "Ira Cornelius Ruthven." Neal is short for Cornelius, and I changed my last name to Locke when my step-father adopted me as a teenager. More on that later.
I carried around this picture of a castle, because, well...it was a castle. It was somehow MY castle, and to a young boy who loved to read about King Arthur and the knights of the round table, that was pretty cool. My ancestors were earls of Scotland. And they had a castle! As I grew older, I researched read about the Ruthven clan in Scottish history.
Imagine my surprise to find out they were notorious rabble rousers--the bad guys in most of the stories about them. When King James the IVth of Scotland (who later became the King James connected to the King James Bible) was a boy, the Ruthvens kidnapped him and held him for ransom in their castle. In the year 1600, after repeated plots against King James, the Ruthven Lords were caught, hung, then beheaded, drawn and quartered, stripped of all their titles, their lands confiscated (including the castle) and they were banished from Scotland forever.
So, I stopped carrying the picture. To be honest, I was a little bit ashamed of that "old treasure" and what it represented.
Meanwhile, my step-father (who was a kind and thoughtful man, if ever there was one, and had been playing the part of father to me since I was two years old) offered to adopt me. I eagerly accepted, and took on a new name. A new identity, which I treasured (and still do). I have proudly carried that new name with me for years, just as I carried that old picture of the Ruthven castle, and my new name has served me well. I have passed that new treasure on to my children.
About ten years ago, I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary studying to become a pastor. One day I was immersed deep within the bowels of the library at Princeton University, studying Reformation history, and I came across an old, dusty, six-volume collection of the writings of John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. I don't know why I felt compelled to flip to the index of the set and look up the name "Ruthven" once more. I found several entries, and I braced myself for the worst--more stories of nefarious deeds and scheming plots.
What I read surprised me, and there alone in the stacks of one of the world's largest libraries, brought me to tears. I read of my ancestor William Ruthven, who John Knox referred to as "a stout and discreet man in the cause of God." I read of another ancestor, Patrick Ruthven, who was faithfully at Knox's bedside in his dying moments. Over the course of several hours (which seemed like minutes) I pieced together a new story--of a deeply devout, faithful family, among the very first to adopt the new reformed religion that would become Presbyterianism, and their struggle against a Queen (Mary, Queen of Scots) who tried to suppress that religion, despite its popularity among her people. Her son, King James, grew to be resentful of the Presbyterian movement, and was especially jealous of the Ruthven family and their strong connections to John Knox and the church that was spreading like wildfire across his lands.
History is often written by the victorious, and through a sequence of near-random events, James went on to become not only the king of Scotland, but the successor to Queen Elizabeth and King of England, too. He later commissioned the famous King James Bible in order to replace the highly popular Bible of the Presbyterians--the Geneva Bible--and he banned the Geneva Bible from circulation, just as he had banished the members of the Ruthven family: both threats to his authority and rule.
What does any of this have to do with our parable today?
Every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder, who brings forth from his treasure what is old, and what is new.
When Jesus spoke those words to his followers in the first century, he was part of a proud religious heritage--Judaism, and the people of ancient Israel, who were among the first to embrace monotheism, and a God who intervened in the lives of his people for good, for justice, and for freedom. And yet, in time, that old story had become distorted, used by the powerful to burden and oppress people, to distance them from their God. Jesus, much like John Knox, began a new movement, a new understanding of God as a force for love, mercy, and grace. Like my ancestors in Scotland, Jesus ultimately paid the price of his life for daring to go against the rulers of his day.
It would have been easy, I think, for Jesus to discard entirely the old ways, the old traditions that he inherited. But he did not. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus said that he came not to abolish the old law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Gr. πληρόω) to complete or bring balance to them again. To bring the old into the new. To reinterpret, and re-understand the old in a new context, a new era.
Fast forward to the 16th century, and Christianity was now the predominant religion of Europe... but once again, the old story (now the story of Jesus himself) had become distorted, used to burden and oppress people, separating them from their God.
Bold reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox, stood up at great peril to their own lives and said, "We need something new." But not at the expense of the old. We need to go back to the sources (ad fontes) and reclaim God's message of grace, mercy and love for a new generation. We need to bring from out of our treasure what is old AND what is new. Their motto was "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei." The church re-formed, and ALWAYS being reformed (over and over again) according to the word of God.
And they changed the world with their words, their preaching, their teaching, and their love.
Today, in the 21st century, the church faces a new challenge: Increasingly, people look at the church and they think, "That's an old story. Christians are hateful, bigoted, close-minded people who use their rules and their dogma to judge and condemn--to oppress and burden the people, to separate them from what is truly divine."
And many walk away from the faith, pursuing new things, new systems of belief that are disconnected from God, and their heritage, and the faith of their parents and grandparents. Others resist this, clinging to old and distorted stories, refusing to acknowledge the new context we live in. The chasm between these two groups grows wider and deeper, and harder to cross. Such is the way with those who embrace only the new, or only the old, to the exclusion of all else.
And Jesus says to them--to us--"Every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings from his treasure what is new AND what is old. Balance. Understanding. Inclusiveness, and kindness.
To bridge that divide--to appreciate the old while embracing the new--takes patience, and courage, and creativity. It takes a community of people committed to each other, to the world they live in, and to the hard work of truly understanding (and re-imagining) the stories they have inherited.
Today I am proud to wear the colors and emblems of the Ruthven family, to say the old prayers and sing the old songs that sustained and inspired my ancestors. And I am proud to share them with a new family, under a new name, in a new world with new challenges and new technologies and new ways of understanding itself. Through it all, the ancient scriptures teach us that Jesus Christ binds us together, the same, yesterday and today and forever.
This is the legacy of the Reformation. This is the good news that we proclaim.