Sunday, July 30, 2017

Kingdom Scribes

Today I am preaching at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Worcester. This Sunday, July 30, is the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture readings for today, as appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary, can be found here. 

"Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks.

Not all that many verses earlier in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was saying that he taught in parables to keep people on their toes, because some would listen and not hear and some would look but not see. Parables take some effort to understand; a bit like interpreting a poem. They are not immediately accessible, and rarely is the meaning self-evident.

And so Jesus asks those first-century hearers and us, gathered around this text as twenty-first century hearers, “have you understood all this?”

And they dutifully nod their heads like lemmings. Yes, we understand, Jesus. (But I suspect they don’t really.) I think they are like men when someone is giving them directions and then the person says, “you got it?” and you respond, “yeah, I got it.” But in truth you aren’t sure if you are supposed to take that first right or that second left after the gas station…

And then these words - the last words I just read from today’s gospel - enigmatic words to be sure from the fifty-second verse of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the most Jewish of all the gospels:

Therefore 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.

What is a scribe, anyway? In the New Testament they often get lumped in with the Pharisees and then caricatured as opponents of Jesus. But apparently, just like there are good priests and bad priests, good lawyers and bad lawyers, good presidents and bad presidents, so also there are good scribes and bad scribes. Jesus refers here to kingdom scribes, those who are in service to the Church or the Jesus’ movement or whatever we may call it.

Scribes like Baruch, who made the book of Jeremiah possible by writing it all down and passing along the wisdom of Jeremiah. Scribes like Ezra, who helped to (as Walter Brueggemann puts it) “reconstitute the community of Judaism” after the exiles came home and gathered at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. (Not to be confused with the hotel in Washington that became famous in the 1970s.) There, at the original Water Gate, the Levites helped the people to understand the Torah, so they read from the scroll with interpretation and gave the sense so that the people understood the reading. (See Nehemiah 8:7-8) [1]

This is what scribes do: they help the people to attend to the text and to listen for a Word of the Lord. That is never immediate. As one of our prayers in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, we “read, mark, learn... [so that we might] inwardly digest” and so that we might become what we eat: a word about the Word before we ever open our mouths.

So each week as we gather in congregations like St. Mark’s and across this diocese and across this nation and around the world we are fed with Bread and Wine - the body and blood of Christ. We pray that our eyes might be opened to perceive the living, risen Christ in our midst. But before we get to that part of the liturgy we hear these ancient texts that feed us in a different way. We read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them as “kingdom scribes” because we trust that there is a not just a history lesson here but a living Word of the Lord, addressed to us right now in this time and place.

Developing eyes that see and ears that hear, however, requires a deep dive, and no small amount of imagination. It means that we can’t keep coming and doing it the same old way or preaching the same old sermons because always we are trying to discern what is new and what is old. That is our tradition: not mere repetition of the past as if curators of a museum, but discernment of what needs to be kept alive as well as making space for the new thing God is doing. Kingdom scribes are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

So let’s back up and try to do this scribal work together. Jesus is on a roll with the parables and gives us four parables that seem straightforward. But with Jesus it’s never that simple. Parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and maybe with our mouths open. They are meant to startle us and even stun us a bit. They are meant to make us think. We’ve heard so much about mustard seeds and yeast - metaphors of smallness that are meant to inspire small congregations like this one to remember that the work of the kingdom is not always about becoming a megachurch. And that’s good, and that’s true.

But Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels and Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. He speaks in a context in which mustard is seen more as a weed than the source of Grey Poupon. Everyone knows the kingdom is supposed to be like a cedar tree; now there is something large and glamorous and beautiful. The prophet Ezekiel foretold that God would plant a great cedar on the mountain of Jerusalem and the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches. (See Ezekiel 17:23) So Jesus is making a kind of parody here, and a subversive parody at that. He’s taking something old and making it new. Perhaps he is suggesting that if you sit around waiting for that splendid cedar you might miss the signs of God’s kingdom right in your midst, even if it looks like a weed or at best a bush and only grows to about five feet or so. Birds of the air can still come and make their nests in its branches. Consider that. Consider those birds, those nests, those mustard seeds.

Do you all know what a measure of flour is? If we don’t know we miss how funny Jesus is: a measure is about twenty pounds. So three measures is about sixty pounds. Again, Jesus is messing with us: imagine a woman goes into Stop and Shop and buys twelve 5 pound bags of flour. She has to ask the person at the checkout to not make the bags too heavy because they’ll break and she has to carry them from her driveway to the kitchen and she’s not quite as strong as she once was. Sixty - 6-0 - pounds of flour! And she gets a little yeast and mixes it in and it is all leavened. A little yeast goes a long way, Jesus says.

Now I don’t know how long it takes and I don’t know if Jesus was a good baker or not or if his mother would have said to him, “Jesus, you can’t just use a little yeast with all that flour. What I know, though, is this: if the metaphor for the church is to be like that yeast, just a little bit of faith can make a big difference. I see it in my work across this diocese: how faith makes room for congregations to keep what is old and embrace what is new. Faith is like a tiny mustard seed or a little yeast in sixty pounds of flour or faith or like a little congregation in Main South in the second largest city in New England, and faith can move mountains.

Do you believe that? I’ll be honest: some days I do, with every fiber of my being. Some days I consider the birds of the air and I see those mustard bushes and I experience the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and I know that with Christ all things are possible.

And other days I wonder if there really is a balm in Gilead, and if there really is a reason to be hopeful when the obstacles to faith loom so large and the Church seems to belong to a different era.

Jesus isn’t done: he says there is a treasure in a field: one pearl worth everything to a pearl merchant. And then there is that net thrown into the sea which catches every kind of fish, both kosher and non-kosher, so they have to be separated out to what can be eaten and what needs to be discarded. Again with the sorting and the discernment of what serves God’s reign and what needs to be discarded. None of these parables or any others prescribe what it means to be the Church in a particular time and place. Rather, they describe the work – they point us in a direction. They ask us to imagine what is possible.

And they subvert our preconceived notions. They make us think and wonder and ask questions. The scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven ask even now, in this time and place: what that is old needs to be carried forward? And what that is new needs to be born and then nurtured and tended to.

Sometimes people think that the bishop and his staff don’t know anything about what’s happening in congregations and other times people think we have all the answers and we just need to issue marching orders. Neither of those are true, however. At best we ask questions and walk with God’s people. We try to tell the truth and offer another perspective and we try to listen which is what I’ll try to do when I meet with your vestry today after worship. I am very clear that I’m not “the Shell Answer Man.”

In my role as a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff, I’m prepared to listen with you and work with you as the next chapter of your life together unfolds. Father Don Chamberlain served not only this congregation but this diocese faithfully for many years. There is reason to give thanks for those many years of service. And for this interim time of discernment and asking what comes next, Father Bob Walters is on hand to walk with you as well and to share his gifts and I give thanks for that as well. This season gives you all an opportunity not to become complacent but to ask some of those big questions about vision and mission and the future and then find mustard-sized ways of implementing that vision. I know that Don cared a great deal about being a witness and presence in this neighborhood and I know that many of you do, too.

Let me just say in conclusion: the goal isn’t for this or any congregation to “keep the doors open.” The goal is to move out of those doors in order to be light and yeast and salt and little mustard seeds that are signs of God’s kingdom. The goal is to figure out, with God’s help, what is old and what is new, which is to say what will serve God in this time and in this place and what needs to be left behind. How do we answer this kind of question? Keep reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting the Word of God and remain open to the ways that God keeps on showing up and surprising us with signs of the Kingdom in our very midst.

[1] I am indebted in this sermon to Walter Brueggemann and in particular to his essay in The Anglican Review 93//3 entitled, “Where is the Scribe?”

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