Jesus once said: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). A householder managed a large estate on behalf of its wealthy owners: they handled its finances, provided food and clothing for family members and workers, supervised servants, and oversaw the education of young children. The job required skill and wisdom. Nothing could be wasted: they were stewards of things both new and old.
My great-grandmother, Laura Beth Linkfield, was that kind of householder. She was a champion organizer of church bazaar and rummage sales, and she devoted her talents to her little, rural Independent Methodist Church outside Huntington, WV.
In two of the “out buildings” on her place, Grandma collected merchandise to be sold at the Annual Bazaar and Sale. As a child, I delighted in rummaging in all that rummage. The buildings were chock-full of treasure: old clothes from which I made pirate and cowboy costumes, used tools which made me think I was a master craftsman, and old radios and televisions which I turned into radar stations and spaceships.
There were new treasures, too: shelves lined with Mason Jars of vegetables, pickles, preserves, and jellies which the women of the church had canned; and there was Laura’s creamy apple-butter, a jar of which “mysteriously” disappeared every time I visited her. There were handmade quilts, baby blankets, scarves, and shawls, too.
When the day of the Sale came, the lawn of the church was covered with tables laden with the treasures. The men made and sold barbecue. Musicians picked and sang; children ran and played; everyone talked, laughed, and spent the day in the crisp autumn air. Laura and her neighbors were householders like Jesus described: they used new and old to benefit their church.
We have a similar task: to use all of God’s treasures—“new and old” to serve the rule and reign of God. We need ancient wisdom and time-tested truth; history and tradition have a lot to reach us. It’s not wise to discount the past. After all, we’re not the first people to try to offer God authentic worship or to face the challenge of living a faithfully in a challenging culture. C. S. Lewis warned us about “chronological snobbery” which is the wrong-headed and wrong-hearted idea that the newest and latest is also the smartest and best. Sometimes, in fact, what we most need is stored in the treasure house of memory. Near the entrance to Winchester Cathedral, there’s a sign that reads: “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born and will continue long after you’re dead.”
Notice, though, that Jesus accented, not the old, but the new: “treasures new and old.” Even more than the invaluable lessons of the past, we need to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the surprising new things God is doing now in the world through Jesus. Since Jesus was, and is, restless for the revolution he called the “kingdom of God,” his followers can’t acquiesce to a status quo that allows injustice, violence, inequality, harshness, and condemnation to stand. In Jesus, the often unsettling and always-new will and way of God are breaking into the present moment.
Such divine newness challenges those people who want churches to maintain or even return to familiar patterns and routines. Too many seasoned church leaders pine for church as it was “back in the day.” Never mind how much more diverse communities have become and how different are our expectations about the roles of women and men. Ignore the exponential rise in two-income households and the shrinking number of available volunteer hours. Pretend that family schedules haven’t become bewilderingly complicated and tightly jammed. Overlook the fact that the culture, even in the south, long ago stopped accommodating the church’s programs by not offering recreational or extra-curricular activities on Wednesday nights or Sundays. Don’t consider how incredible innovations in communications have shortened people’s attention spans and increased their demands for visually-oriented learning. Never mind all these things and you end-up with a church perfectly designed for the 1950s or the 1980s.
The question church leaders should ask is: “How can tradition help us to recognize and receive the newness of God?” If this new thing looks, sounds, and feels like Jesus, it’s a gift we can gratefully receive. We face vast challenges: socio-economic inequities, gender and sexuality issues, racism, and xenophobia among them. There are new treasures in the storehouse. Through his Spirit, Jesus is speaking. He promised: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13).