Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 5, 2023
Matthew 5:13-20 “Modern Ancient Wisdom”
(My sermon this morning is focusing on the second half of today’s scripture reading. I will be reflecting on the first half, the salt and light metaphors, during my annual report later on.)
In 2000, the movie ‘Keeping the Faith’ came out. It starred Edward Norton and Ben Stiller. Norton played a priest serving an urban parish in New York City and Stiller played a rabbi serving a nearby synagogue. The movie was, believe it or not, a love triangle rom-com – with Jenna Elfman playing a mutual love interest. The three characters grew up together, with the boys each being devoted to and fascinated by their faiths. So, when they were older they both went off to seminary. There is this great sequence of each of them at their seminaries studying scripture. Norton, playing the Catholic seminarian, is seen in this dusty library, surrounded by giant tomes of ancient religious literature. The books are literally huge, and when Norton tries to pick one up to study it and its wisdom closer, he loses his balance and falls out of his chair, the giant book falling on him. We then flash to a scene with Stiller at rabbinical school, standing with a teacher in front of a book of scripture, hands gesturing wildly as they argued. The scene ends with Stiller storming away from the scripture and his teacher yelling, “I don’t want to listen to any of you.”
Both scenes are a great example of the way many people study scripture. For some it is an adventure into the ancient past, seeking wisdom through literature that is seeped in mystery and the divine. For others, it is an exercise in frustration and argument against all of the traditional or doctrinal interpretations that come with scripture. My experience has been a bit of both – sometimes I see scripture as a deep well, filled with living water to be explored and experienced. Something both forever mysterious and approachable. At other times, scripture to me is nothing more than a maddening collection of outdated mandates about behavior or limited views of the glories of God that makes me through my hands in the air and storm away. I tend to go back and forth – but I always find myself going back to it. I have always found myself, after the initial frustration has past, returning to this ancient collection of writings and giving it another chance. And usually, I am rewarded.
There is a tension, I think, especially for people in progressive religious traditions like the United Church of Christ, between holding onto ancient wisdom, and looking into and embracing the future with an expanded idea of what it means to worship God. And when I say ancient wisdom, I mean ancient. I am not talking about modern church history. I am talking about the wisdom contained in the gospels and letters of the New Testament (and because of my progressive UCC-ness, I do include in that the gospels and letters that were not included in the final canon of the Bible we have today). And, the even more ancient wisdom of the foundational Jewish texts that we have in our First Testament – the story of the formation of a faith focused on one God, a mystical creation narrative, warnings of the prophets, and poetry of the psalms. The tension between holding onto all of this wisdom and also not letting it box us in, this tension is too much for many.
In my experience, progressive Christians tend to want to ease that tension by simply dismissing a lot of what is contained in the Bible. I have done it myself – I will read something in scripture, say to myself (or out loud), “well, that’s stupid,” and just turn the page. Thomas Jefferson was famous for this. In creating what has become known as the ‘Jefferson Bible’, using a razor blade, Jefferson took six different versions of the Gospels and removed anything that he considered extraneous to the life and teachings of Jesus. He carefully removed anything that hinted of miracles or the supernatural. He was long considered suspect because of his, at the time, unusual Christian beliefs, but he said the act of creating the Jefferson Bible was proof that he was “a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
For all of us who have been tempted to take a razor blade to our Bibles and remove the things we don’t like, or that we feel get in the way of what Christianity is really about, Jefferson is a bit of hero. But, to do so, I think, would in fact be a contradiction to the very teachings of Jesus. In today’s scripture lesson, we hear Jesus say that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets. He goes on to say that not even one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all of it is accomplished. And, to be clear, by law and prophets, he meant the ancient scriptures that we now call the Old Testament.
Jesus seems to indicate that he needed to be clear about this because there were rumors to the contrary. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” he says, clearly having the understanding that some were in fact thinking just that. It makes sense that they were though. Jesus opened this entire sermon with the beatitudes, the blessings that reverse all logic. Even more than that, he was taking up the work of John the Baptist, a wild-eyed itinerant preacher who was not shy about telling the people that things were about to change. So it is understandable that some of the people listening to Jesus were thinking that he was there to start everything fresh. To let go of the old completely in order to make room for the new.
But, I do not believe that was his motivation at all. In fact, I think it is clear that it wasn’t. Jesus doesn’t dismiss the laws. In fact, he quotes them, over and over again. The Psalms, that book that contains extraordinary wisdom that is just as relatable now as it was then, were constantly being quoted by Jesus. It is clear he was drawing on the ancient scriptures and practices of this faith in his ministry. He was not dismissing or replacing them.
But he was also not allowing himself to be boxed into by them. In fact, he did just the opposite. He broke open the old wisdom to let new light shine into them. He broke open old traditions to make room for God. The values that had been created by humans were reversed so they could align with the values evident by God’s creation. The ancient wisdom was not thrown away, instead it was used as bridge to walk into the future. A bridge with a sure foundation that could withstand anything that was thrown at it.
It is that wisdom that we continue to rely on today. We can do both – we can explore the scriptures seeking their divine guidance, we can throw up our hands in frustration and storm away, and, as long as we are willing to come back, we will start again. And every time we do, a little more light will shine through, and a little more space will be made for God.
Today is our annual meeting. We will, yes, review the year that has just passed. But, more importantly, we will look to the year and years to come. We will try to chart a course that will take us to a place that we really can’t yet understand. We will continue to break open traditions to make room for more light and we will explore ancient wisdom that will help us to understand not just yesterday but tomorrow. We will consider ways that we have boxed out space for God and work to correct it. We will do all of this by not throwing away all that we are built upon, but by standing on it as a firm foundation so we can walk into tomorrow.
By doing so we are relying on the ancient wisdom of Christ. It is miraculous, I think, that lesson from 2000 years ago is what we can rely on to move into tomorrow. Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, you set us forth on a path from the very moment of our creation. Just as you were there at the beginning and declaring us good, we know that you will be there tomorrow, rejoicing anew. For this constant presence in our lives, we give you great thanks and it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
There are times God when we can struggle to find you in the midst of traditions and religious rules. In those moments, help us to see the cracks that can be broken open to give more room for you in your lives and in the lives of all people we encounter. We trust that you are there, and we rely on your strength to help us find you.
As we seek you in both the old and the new, we also hold within our hearts the cares of the world. The practice of prayer may be ancient, but it continues to provide us comfort and gives us an opportunity to care for the people in our lives in a way that passes all understanding. In these moments of silence, we lift our prayers to you, trusting you hear and respond…
Great and loving God, you continue to provide for us new teachings to better understand you. And one of the ways you do this is by bringing us back to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one who embodied you and the one who showed the world what it means to live your kingdom into existence. We pray all of this and so much more in his name and in the way he taught…Our Father…