Summary: A sermon for Church Anniversary

Jesus said, ‘every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure-store both the new and the old.’

This rather odd little verse is probably a kind of signature from the writer of the Gospel. It’s as though he was giving us a hint about what he was working at. It may be that the scribe he describes in his verse is actually the kind of scribe he’s trying to be. Matthew wanted us to see how Jesus was deeply rooted in the traditions of Israel - faithful to them and fulfilling them - but also bringing something strikingly new. That’s why I’ve chosen this text for our anniversary service. I want to say something about the old and the new. Many of us, like the good scribe, are well schooled in the traditions of our faith, and of our particular branch of the Christian Church. Many of us are also deeply aware of and sensitive to the needs and concerns of the new: of the contemporary world. God speaks to us now, through our experiences and through the communities where we live, as God spoke to our ancestors in this congregation, our Reformed ancestors around the world, and our ancestors in the scriptures. Many of us have steadfast and honourable commitments to the traditions of faith, and many of us are also open to all that the contemporary world offers to us of challenge and grace. I hope, that by think more about this verse, we might see that the old and the new are not mutually exclusive, but are both essential for life and health. If we are only living in the past, then we are not the good scribe, if we are only interested in the new things, then we are not the good scribe. The good scribe is interested in both the old and the new.

This church building is certainly one of the treasures of the United Reformed Church. Through the history of the congregation and the building we are given a powerful reminder here of the particular witness we have inherited. But it’s also a place where the insights and concerns of the modern world come though the church door, onto the premises, and are recognised and given space. The juxtaposition of the older sanctuary and the newer Spire Coffee Shop are a parable of Matthew’s very insight - that new and old belong together and can be brought out from the same treasure house.

The distinction between old and new is something which troubles both the world we live in today and the church. Have you ever noticed, for example, that products can be advertised in quite contradictory ways? Sometimes we’re encouraged to buy something because it’s ‘new’ - the latest thing, you’ve never seen anything like it before. And sometimes we encouraged to buy something because it’s just like things used to be, it’s traditional, what your granny would have known. And so most of live in a world in which we drink tea ‘like tea used to be’ and in which our washing powder is forever ‘new’ and ‘improved’. We dread being ‘ashamed of our mobiles’, but we want antique, distressed pine in our kitchens. In the strange patchwork world that we now live, I believe it’s called post-modernity, we can’t decide whether old or new is best. And in the strange world of the church we often divide ourselves up according to whether we like ‘traditional hymns’ or ‘new worship songs’, or whether we’d rather have the old pews or buy new chairs, or whether we want our theology and faith more than anything to be faithful to our reading of the tradition or to be led by the concerns of the world. Sometimes in the church we marginalise those who are ‘older’ and long only for ‘young’ people and ‘new families’ to join us - and sometimes we are desperately frightened of anything new. We can’t decide whether to sing a new song or to the Lord or to tell the old, old stories. Sometimes we make the terrible mistake of the thinking that the ‘old’ testament is simply superseded by the new, and then at other times we cling to an ‘old’ translation of the Bible even though scholars have found for us important new insights. We can’t decide whether old or new is best.

But Jesus said, when we are disciples in the kingdom of heaven we are like those who can produce both the old and the new. It is always tempting to choose one or the other, either to hold on to the comfort and reassurance of the past or to sweep it away in a grand step into the unknown. It’s tempting to find our identity either among the traditional or among the fashionable. But in the things of faith, a broader landscape lies before us.

This what I think it means to be a Reformed Church. For just a moment, I’d like to use Jewish religion to help illuminate Christianity with an illustration borrowed from Rowan Williams. There are three kinds of Jews: Orthodox, Liberal and Reformed. If we think of our Christian identity like that, we might see some new insights. Orthodox Christians, in this context, broadly speaking, would be those who are concerned with continuity, and with faithfulness to the traditions of the faith. Liberal Christians, in this context, broadly speaking, are those committed to asking questions and making the faith new for today’s world. One brings out the old, if you like, and the other the new. Reformed Christians, in this context, broadly speaking, would mean trying to hold the truth and insight of both the Orthodox and the Liberal, (or you might say the traditional and the modern, the old and the new) together, in faith, in love, in fidelity to the mystery of God. To be Reformed is to be strongly rooted in the traditions of our faith, but also to be open to the Holy Spirit who constantly questions and renews them. Or, if you like, it is to be a disciple in the Kingdom of God, like a householder bringing out of the storehouse both old and new. I think there is something of this in our understanding of what it means to be in the United Reformed Church.

We will always need the old as well as the new in our storehouse of faith. It is easy for people who live today to think those who lived before us simply old fashioned, strange, unenlightened. But they have wisdom to pass on to us and we are foolish to ignore it. Of course we would also be foolish to think that they what they thought and shared and lived can simply be taken over and used now. We cannot live in second hand clothes. We need to make faith and life new again in our day - but not, I think, by turning away from all that is past. Imagine that all the people who have ever worshipped in this congregation were here today - there would be many hundreds of them with many different experiences and stories to tell. And in a way they are here - part of our storehouse, part of who we are now. But our faithfulness to their witness lies in responding to the Gospel with integrity for our own times - while never letting go of their hands. In that familiar story of the dry bones, God does not breath life into new bones, it is old ones that come back to life again. New life and old bones together.

The kind of distinctions we love to make between old and new are constantly challenged by the Bible and by our faith. Jesus promised a ‘new commandment’ - to love one another, but of course it wasn’t new in the sense that no-one had ever suggested it before. Jesus lived in times when no-one thought that the important thing was to be original - the important thing was to be faithful and to bring to new life the old traditions, the things known since the foundation of the world, but which every generation must hear again as though for the first time. St Paul promises and declares that if we are in Christ we are a ‘new creation’, but of course another way of saying this is that we are restored to what God always intended us to be, since the beginning of creation.

The faith we share is rooted in ancient and holy stories. It is also a brave and moving story of a pilgrim people, always moving on to new places, taking with them the treasures of the old. This is, I think what is meant when we are told that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.