SERMON: Bringing out of the treasure of scripture what is new and what is old!

SERMON: Bringing out of the treasure of scripture what is new and what is old!

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 30 July 2017

The stories of the patriarchs contained in the book of Genesis begin with the Lord’s call to Abraham and end with Jacob blessing his sons before his death in the land of Egypt.

In between the call of Abraham and the death of Jacob lie the stories of Leah and Rachel that concern us this morning from our Old Testament reading.

So let’s remind ourselves of that story.

Jacob has been sent away by his father Isaac to find a wife from one of the daughters of Laban back in northern Mesopotamia where the family has come from. And with great detail and surprising subtlety the story tells of Jacob meeting Laban and his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Leah is the elder of the two sisters whose eyes, as we heard, were ‘lovely’, whereas the younger one, Rachel, we heard described as ‘graceful and beautiful’.

Laban and the family had put their best foot forward at their first meeting with Jacob. But as is often the case, first appearances can be deceptive! We heard this morning how when it came to the wedding night, Laban substituted his eldest daughter Leah for Rachel, justifying his deception by saying:
‘This is not done in our country – giving the younger
before the firstborn.’
And from then on the story of Leah and Rachel descends into one of jealousy and rivalry as they vie with each for Jacob’s affection by the number of sons they could produce for him!

So what could Christian thought and reflection possibly find here to nourish hearts and inspire lives? The medieval mind did!

To appreciate this, we need to know a little about how the medieval mind approached the interpretation of scripture. During the early centuries of the Church, a way of interpreting the scriptures had developed which meant that in approaching any passage, different meanings were looked for – a literal meaning for sure, but more than that – a moral, an allegorical and a spiritual meaning too – there were a number of levels that it was thought were contained in the treasure of scripture.

Different thinkers of course developed slightly different approaches, but any passage was broadly thought to have these four levels of meaning – a literal, a moral, an allegorical and a spiritual meaning.

So we find that during the medieval period, in 1308 when Dante came to write the Divine Comedy, in the second part, Purgatory, in his last dream he is concerned with this Old Testament story of Leah and Rachel, the same two wives of Jacob that we have been reading about.

But to have any idea what Dante is on about, you have to be familiar with the writings in particular of Richard of St. Victor. He was like a scribe, trained for the kingdom of heaven, who brought out of his treasure what is new and what is old. And what he brought out from the story of Leah and Rachel, deeper than any literal or moral meaning, was an allegory of the relationship between the Active and the Contemplative life!

How so?

Well, Leah’s eyes were ‘weak’ – that was the translation that they had in front of them, not ‘lovely’ as we have it in our translation – Leah’s eyes were ‘weak’ but she was fruitful; Rachel on the other hand was ‘graceful and beautiful’ but barren, she had no children.

So, according to these medieval thinkers, Leah represents the Active life, fruitful in good works, ‘weaving white hands to and fro’, as Dante came to write, but quite unable to see very far into the things of the spirit. All because she had ‘weak eyes’!

On the other hand Rachel represented for them the Contemplative life, the life wholly devoted to prayer and the practice of the Presence of God, ‘for on her own bright eyes she still prefers to gaze’, as Dante wrote. And as we have heard from the scriptures, Rachel was ‘graceful and beautiful’.

These medieval thinkers who reflected on the story of Leah and Rachel, were also struck by the fact that, as we heard Laban say:
‘This is not done in our country – giving the younger
before the firstborn.’

From this they drew the inference that the Active life, represented by Leah, was a necessary prerequisite to the Contemplative life. Leah had to be married before Rachel because the Active life comes first and leads on then to the Contemplative life!

This, for the medieval mind, was a very satisfying interpretation of the story of Leah and Rachel!

To us, I suspect, it’s quite bewildering!

To find here an allegory for the relationship between the Active and the Contemplative life seems bizarre! So what are we to make of this?

Firstly the way they interpreted scripture is clearly very different to our own. It was fluid, never content to stay with just the literal meaning but always looking for deeper meanings in the text, moral, allegorical and spiritual. They were like the master of a household who brought out of the treasure of scripture what is new and what is old.

We wouldn’t go about it the same way, but there is a depth to scripture, there are echoes and resonances that speak to our hearts even if our minds struggle to grasp them.

Our modern critical approach to scripture has undoubtedly brought important insights. But I’m reminded of the poet Emily Dickinson who wrote: ‘Don’t slit open the nightingale to find the song’! She was referring to her poetry, but it’s true for the scriptures too. There’s a song sung in scripture and you won’t find it by slitting the scriptures open – ‘Don’t slit open the nightingale to find the song’!

Secondly, the medieval mindset is of course the same mindset that built this church with all the rich symbolism contained here. It’s a place of extraordinary beauty and spiritual depth and we know that in our hearts, even if our minds struggle to understand.

During last week I was walking up the church path with our architect, and coming through the church gate was Andrew Lloyd Weber. I welcomed him, showed him round and talked about the work we’re having done. I don’t know what had drawn him to visit St Mary’s this week or even whether he wanted to be shown round – perhaps he just wanted somewhere quiet to pray!

We don’t inhabit the medieval world, but despite this, our Church building still speaks.

Lastly the issue of contemplation and action is not something restricted to the medieval mystics, but a perennial theme in the Christian life.

Bonheoffer in his final writings ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ wrote that prayer and righteous action are the two enduring aspects of the Christian life that remain whatever circumstances we’re in.

Richard Rohr, one of the most influential contemporary Christians, has founded a Centre for Action and Contemplation in America and many people get his daily thoughts that you can access on-line. We are each called to hold together in our lives both the Active and the Contemplative, and to ‘Act contemplatively’.

So what I’ve tried to do in this sermon is to be like that person referred to by Jesus, who brings out of the treasure of scripture what is new and what is old!

May it nourish hearts and inspire lives!