Wednesday, May 25, 2016
New and Old
This is a sermon preached for the minor feast of Bede the Venerable. Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
If Jesus promised to make his disciples "fishers of men," what kind of bait did he teach them to use?
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, my friend Tim and his father and I loaded up the truck and headed down to Weeks Bay to go fishing. For teenagers like us who grew up on the coast, it didn't get much better than fishing on a Saturday morning. We pulled a jon boat behind the truck, but, when we got to the water's edge, we didn't put the boat in the water. Nor did we get the fishing rods out of the truck. First, before we could do anything else, we had to get some bait.
We walked down to the beach not far from the boat launch and stepped into the water up to our calves. Tim's father took a cast net, folded it up, cradled it in his left hand, held one part of the net with his right, gripped the other side of the net with his teeth, as I had been taught, and twisted his body, uncoiling his arms and the net and letting go with his mouth all in a synchronized effort that unfurled the weighted net in an almost perfect circle before it hit the surface of the water and sank out of sight. The line attached to the end of the net was fastened securely around his wrist, and, as he drug it onto the shore, in the dim morning light, we could see silvery fish flipping and flopping under its weight. Bait.
There were all sorts of sea critters in the net, many of which did us no good, and the three of us sorted through the catch, placing what we could use into a bucket and throwing what we couldn't use back into the bay. After a few more casts, we had all the bait fish we needed, and we walked back to the truck, placed the net in the bed, backed the trailer down the boat launch, and headed out for a morning's fishing.
"The kingdom of heaven," Jesus tells us, "is like a net that was thrown into the sea" (Matthew 13:47-52). This is the seventh and final parable in Matthew 13--a chapter full of parables about the kingdom. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, the Parables of the Treasure Hidden in a Field and the Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls, and, finally, the Parable of the Net. "The kingdom of heaven is like all of these things," Jesus says, "and I'm saying these things to you so that you will get a glimpse of how God and God's kingdom work." In his analogistic way, Jesus was painting a series of pictures of the kingdom of heaven not to give his audience a complete understanding of the kingdom but to show them that God was (and is) doing something none of them expected. Like a dragnet or seine, everything and everyone was caught up in what God was doing in Jesus, and Jesus was showing those who would listen that they didn't need to worry about what got dragged along. Good and bad, it was all going to be sorted out later.
"Anyone who is properly trained as an expert on God's kingdom," Jesus told them, "is like the master of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." In other words, those who know about the kingdom know that our understanding of that kingdom comes from ancient traditions and new insights. Like the good host of a family's Thanksgiving dinner, if the menu was exactly the same every year for a century, it might get a little stale, but no one wants to show up for Thanksgiving and find nothing familiar on the table. It must be both--old and new--and, like the master of a house, those who speak of the kingdom are able to weave both strands into their understanding. And, if you think that's easy, try asking people in the church to change.
Today we remember the Venerable Bede--historian, churchman, and doctor or "teacher" of the church. Bede is most well known for his work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He lived in the 7th & 8th centuries, and, back then, history wasn't a popular subject. If you didn't read Greek and Latin, which is to say if you weren't fabulously wealthy and well educated, you didn't care about history. Just tell me what I need to know to make it through today. Why would I bother learning how Christianity made it to England hundreds of years ago? But Bede knew and cared, and he wanted others to care as well. He translated the most important theological texts of his day into the vernacular, enabling the spread and enrichment of a distinctly English Christianity. He taught and wrote and documented and compiled. He wrote biblical commentaries and doctrinal treatises. He spent his life making the riches and wonders of the church available to his people, and laid a foundation for Anglicanism--not the denomination but the way of thinking. His work, respecting the old and bringing it into the new, made Christianity in Great Britain its own expression of the faith.
But that was then, and this is now. Our heritage as Episcopalians is that of old and new. We come from that stream of Christianity that is simultaneously traditional and ground-breaking. But how many of us are willing to break new ground as a church? The world is changing, and we are having a hard time keeping up. In this century, it may not be a language barrier, but there is a cultural separation between traditional, mainline Christianity and the world around us. The world still needs Jesus, and we have Jesus to share, but, if we're only setting the table with the same old silver, I'm not sure anyone will come and eat. Anyone who would share knowledge of the kingdom of heaven must be like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure new and old. We've got the old. We're good at old. Maybe it's time for us to remember our history and do something new.