Saturday, July 26, 2014

Things Temporal and Things Eternal

Violence in Gaza, photo from The New Yorker

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom
nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon
us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so
pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen--Collect for Proper 12, BCP

One of my priest friends put out a statement on Facebook this morning, one of those "complete this phrase" kind of statements. 

"The kingdom of heaven is like...."

This was an obvious reference to tomorrow's Gospel lesson from Matthew where Jesus is wrapping up his "pick your parable" session involving scattering seeds, seeds and weeds, and finally a succession of "the kingdom of heaven is like" comparisons that include mustard seeds, yeast, pearls, hidden treasures, a whole net full of fish.  In the end, he looks at everyone and wants to know, "Do you get it?"  Dutifully, the faithful followers all nod, "Yes" and Jesus concludes, "Any scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who pulls out of his treasure what is old and what is new." 

Scribes?  Wait a minute.  Aren't the scribes "bad guys" in the narrative of Christ's ministry?  Yes, they are portrayed as among those who are constantly out to show up Jesus as a fraud.  But the scribes are also among the learned ones in the community.  And Jesus seems to be saying to his followers, "If you understand this stuff I've been saying, then you are like the learned ones who are trained for the kingdom of heaven (i.e. my kind of ministry)."  And then what are these scribes like?  Well, Jesus says, they're like the house master who has this treasure chest.  In it are things old and things new.  Does Jesus say to throw out the old?  Does Jesus say put aside the new?  No.  Jesus says the house master pulls out what is old and new.  Because this is the yin and yang that a "scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven" must have to follow in Christ's footsteps, and discern and pass through those things that are temporal while not losing sight of the eternal.

We have to do that all the time in our contemporary life.  A prime example is what one person said to my friend's posting.  Obviously, this responder was another priest and was contemplating how a look at the nightly news these days hardly reveals the kingdom of heaven.  Fighting and death tolls rising as the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis wages on, fighting that now has friends pitted against friends on Facebook as American Jews clash with their non-Jewish associates who see the conflict in Gaza as a one-sided issue.  More airplanes are crashing mysteriously overseas.  Looting is happening at the sight of the downed passenger jet in Ukraine.  The militant group ISIS is terrorizing Christians and some Muslims in northern Iraq.  Here at home, we are often treated to news of sports stars committing battery; executions that go awry because the lethal drugs worked too slowly to kill an inmate; jingoistic protests at our borders against children fleeing violence in their home countries in Central America.  Spend enough half-hours every night with just those headlines alone and it's hard to see where one can find a good comparison to the kingdom of heaven in all of that.

I don't know what that particular priest plans to say, but my answer to that post was to admit that--yes--given the news, it would be tough to talk about "the kingdom of heaven" in those circumstances.  But all of the things we see on the nightly news, the horrors and the tragedies, are never the full picture.  Even amidst the fighting in Gaza, there are Israeli and Palestinians who really are committed to peace, and really do want the rockets and shelling to stop.  For every person screaming at refugee children in buses, there are many others who are looking to find ways to address a humanitarian crisis.   And there are men in the NFL who know that it's alright to tackle another man on a football field, but it is not alright to raise your fist to your fiancee.   To me, there are signs of the eternal that flicker in the spaces in-between these stories of brokenness and trouble in our world.  In that sense, I would say, the kingdom of heaven is like the aid worker who continues to bring food and medicine to the wounded and those being displaced because of war and civil unrest.

The eternal truth is always there...even when our temporal temper tantrums seem to gain all the media attention.   And we must live with both those truths.  The task before us, if we are going to be like that scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, is to remain in contact with our Eternal Source to know the difference between what is the new and the old.

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