Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
June 30, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It seems the older I get, the less I like change. Not too long ago I went to a menís retreat at the local UCC camp on the Kitsap Peninsula. As I was packing for that weekend away, I found myself resenting the disruption of my usual routine. Somehow just getting the few things together that I needed to get through three days away from my usual surroundings and my usual patterns of daily living seemed like entirely too much trouble. Why couldnít I just stay home, where things were comfortable and predictable? How could anything I might gain from that weekend retreat make up for the inconvenience and the discomfort of my having to change the way I always do things and accommodate myself to different surroundings, different living arrangements, different people, different food? What if I forgot something I needed? It all just seemed too much. I went; but I didnít like the change it required in my life, even if only for a couple of days.
Now leaving home for a couple of days to go on a retreat is a pretty minor thing. Imagine how much I dislike change in major things!
The church has a long if not exactly proud tradition of resisting change as well. Only in very recent times have some parts of the church afforded equal status to women in ministry, for example. And some parts of the church, including the Roman Catholic Church that represents fully one half of all the worldís Christians, still do not do so. The UCC was a pioneer in this regard, ordaining the first woman in America in 1853. But look at what that means: the church had existed for 1800 years by that time! Talk about resistance to change! Huge parts of the Christian church today are firmly entrenched against affording equal human dignity and full equality in ministry to Godís gay and lesbian sons and daughters. Will it be another 1800 years before the church gains the vision and courage to change on that issue?
Now our Gospel lesson this morning does not use the word "change." Yet I believe that change is precisely what that lesson is all about. This short selection from Matthewís Gospel is packed with stories and sayings. I canít go into all of those stories and sayings in one brief sermon. Let me just say that, in ways we can perhaps discuss in greater detail in our Bible study series on Matthew that begins next week, all of the lessons here have to do with newness of religious life. They all, in one way or another, turn the religious establishment of Jesusí day on its head. That being said, I want to concentrate this morning on the concluding part of the lesson. Here Jesus uses images that expressly talk about the old and the new, which he has not done up to this point in this passage even though he is really talking throughout about things that are new.
He begins this last part of the passage with a very homey image that everyone can understand. No one, he says, is so foolish as to sew a patch of new cloth on an old garment. The old garment cannot adapt to the shrinking of the new cloth, and what is supposed to be a repair ends up destroying the garment altogether. The point is clear. The old must and will give way to accommodate the characteristics of the new. If it does not, it will be destroyed. We all know about cloth shrinking, so this image isnít too hard to get around.
The second image, and the one I want to spend more time on, is a little more obscure. No one puts new wine in old wineskins. What does that mean? Our wine comes in glass bottles. We donít use wineskins. And we donít really know what "new" wine is. Our wine is already aged. Even the cheap stuff is aged a little bit. In Jesusí day it was different. A wineskin is a flask of leather, probably goatskin. As the leather aged and was used, so the commentaries tell me, it became stiff and brittle. It was likely to crack and leak if subjected to any significant amount of pressure. New wine is wine that is still fermenting. It gives off gases. It is effervescent. It bubbles as it develops. In a closed wineskin, the action of the new wine as it gives off gases builds up pressure. If the wineskin is old, that is, if it is stiff and brittle, it cannot expand to accommodate that pressure, that is, to accommodate the life, the spirit, the activity of the new wine inside. It cannot hold the newness in. It breaks, and both its old form and all that new life inside it are lost. Like the old cloth with a new patch, it canít change to accommodate the new, so it is destroyed.
What a marvelous image! Of course, Jesus isnít talking about wine. He drank wine, but he wasnít a wine merchant. This isnít a lesson on the proper packaging of wine. Jesus is teaching in the theology faculty, not the business school of the university of life. Even the most ardent literalist will recognize this language as metaphor. What is it a metaphor for? In this new wine image, he is talking about something that is bubbling, growing, expanding, stretching its container. That something is, I believe, the Holy Spirit. Thatís what the Holy Spirit does among us. It is a bubbling, churning, expanding presence among us that is constantly making us stretch, challenging us to grow, daring us to expand our horizons. Through the Holy Spirit, God constantly challenges us to look at new ways of being, new conceptions of what it means to be faithful, of what it means to live faithfully in our time and place.
Jesusí message to the people of first century Palestine, and to us, is a new word of Godís love for all people. That word was revolutionary in his time, and in ours. The Pharisees, then and now, could not and can not expand to contain the effervescent new word of God Jesus was bringing them. The religious establishment rejected the gift Jesus offered. Thatís clear in our Gospel passage this morning. Who are Jesusí followers here? Sinners and tax collectors. Now, a sinner in those days meant someone who did not follow the rules of the Purity Code to which the Pharisees were so committed. We talked about that just a couple of weeks ago. In those days, a sinner was someone who didnít follow the rules; someone who didnít tithe to the Temple, even if the reason was that tithing meant they couldnít feed their families; someone who worked in a profession considered unclean, which included such innocent and useful occupations as raising sheep [Kayleen take note]; someone with certain physical or mental illnesses thought to make the person ritually impure; someone of the wrong nationality, a gentile or a Samaritan, even one who would stop to help the victim of an assault that the "righteous" priest and Levite had passed by; someone who didnít follow the sexual and marriage norms of the day, like the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman taken in adultery in the stories in the Gospel of John. A sinner in those days was an outcast, the ones the good people of respectable society and established religion rejected and scorned.
And it was precisely these people whom Jesus is here calling new wineskins. Note how this passage is structured. Structure in the Gospels is almost never an accident. It usually has something to say, something to add to the story. Here, the passage starts with Jesus calling Matthew, a tax collector, i.e., one of those sinners, an outcast, and a particularly reviled outcast because he was a collaborator with the Roman conqueror. It ends with Jesus saying that one puts new wine in new wineskins. When we read the opening and the closing parts of this passage together and as complimenting and explaining each other, which is good critical technique with the Bible, what we see is: Matthew, the sinner, the outsider, the outcast, is being called a new wineskin that can receive the new word of God that Jesus is pouring out and that the old wineskins, those with rigid, inflexible religious attitudes here represented by the Pharisees, could not accept that new word.
Think about that for a minute. What stops us from accepting the new word of God in Christ, from being open to new movings of the Holy Spirit, is not being a sinner (at least in the Phariseesí sense of the word), is not being an outsider, is not being among those whom society scorns and rejects. Quite the opposite. What stops us from containing the expanding Holy Spirit among us is precisely clinging to old religious ways, holding on to rigid religious attitudes that we actually believe to be good. Thatís what the Pharisees were doing in this passage and throughout the Gospels. Isnít that what the church is doing in many ways today as well?
Now, donít get me wrong. I do not intend here to minimize the power or seriousness of sin in our lives. Sin properly understood is a powerful impediment to our accepting the Good News of God in Christ. That, in fact, is precisely what I think Jesus is telling us here. But among the sins that block the action of the Holy Spirit among us are precisely those rigid religious attitudes Jesus is attacking in these stories. Among the sins that block the action of the Spirit is being a rigid, inflexible old wineskin. Other sins will do it too, of course--any kind of idolatry for example. Idolatry of wealth, or of the self. Indeed, the sin of the Pharisees can be described as their making an idol of the law. Sin is indeed a powerful force in our lives that keeps us from receiving the new wine of the Spirit. What our lesson this morning reminds us is that religious rigidity is part of that sin.
And donít think Iím saying that every innovation anyone might propose is a new working of the Holy Spirit. Far from it. Innovation can lead us away from God at least as easily as it can lead us toward God. It is rarely easy to tell which new things are truly the work of the Holy Spirit among us. The truth of something new, as indeed the truth of anything old, must be sought through an intentional work of discernment in the faith community. We must pray over it, study our tradition, listen to our community and to those people anywhere who possess greater wisdom than we do ourselves; and we must do this with open minds, without prejudging the truth or falsity of a new idea, or of an old one for that matter. We must be prepared to reject what we discern to be false, new or old. But perhaps even more importantly we must be prepared to accept what we now discern to be true, even if in the past we had considered it false. We must be flexible, able to stretch and grow, if we would be true to the workings of God among us.
It isnít easy. None of us likes change. The old is comfortable. The temptation to be static, to cling to the status quo, is powerful. Left to our own devices, we may not be able to stretch, to grow, as God calls us to do. The Good News is that the grace of God in and through Jesus Christ is always available to us and can give us the strength and the courage we need but do not have on our own to respond in faith to the new movings of the Holy Spirit. The grace of God can make our old wineskins new.
I overcame my resistance to change and went to that retreat. It turned out to be a good experience (in large part because of a conversation I had there with Manny, in which he told me something that I still struggle to remember and act upon), well worth the trouble of going, even though I had to stay in a room with a couple of people who snored so badly I got almost no sleep. Change, when we have the courage to do it, can be a life giving thing.
Where is God calling us to new things today? Where is God calling you to newness today in your personal life, to a new way of living, of relating to yourself, to others, and to God? Where is God calling this church to new truths and new visions today? What old beliefs and practices are we being asked to discard as no longer faithful to the will of God? What new neighbors are we being asked to welcome fully into the family of faith? What new wine are we being asked to expand to contain? Can we do it? How much do we trust Godís grace? How new are our wineskins?