Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”
And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.Matthew 9:14-17
Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
There was once a person who wore a mask. And another who did not.
Did that get your attention? Well, if it did, then maybe you can appreciate some of the attention that Jesus’ hearers brought with them as our Lord spun his yarns and shared his wisdom with those walking with him in his ministry. Jesus referenced everyday things from normal life, and provocatively gave them more meaning than people usually placed on them. Now, given, masks carry with them some special meaning these days, so my mention of them was simply to get your attention. Maybe it worked.
There is no doubt that Jesus got people’s lasting attention with his parables and stories (how many 2,000 year old stories can you recall from memory?)
Parables are not precisely ‘earthly stories with heavenly meaning’, although that is a good start… they are really more like the reverse; they are ‘heavenly stories with earthly meaning’; at least as they can apply to our lives and make our living more meaningful and in line with God’s good intentions for us. Each one a precious pearl of wisdom that together make a string of pearls that we can treasure and remember.And, yes. I have a couple of stories that have come to mind about these two comparisons that Jesus shared, about cloth and wine. Both are a little bit funny.
It was a few years ago now, at the church Christmas party, always a wonderful event, when it was hosted by Jim & Susan Mayer. I was in the kitchen of their home, just having sung our Christmas Carol for our blessing of the evening, and I was leaning back on the kitchen counter. I began to sniff in the air something burning…. it smelled oddly like cloth. Before I knew it, Jenn DiFrancesco was yelling at me… “Tom, your jacket’s on fire!”
Well, it was. I was leaning up on the counter, where Susan & Jim had lined up a batch of tea candles, and the tail of my sport jacket was a bit on fire, not bursting in flames, but more than singed. It was easy enough to put out… not much damage done; but patching the hole in that jacket is not anything I’ve gotten around to doing since. I don’t have the right fabric to do it…. You just can’t put a normal patch on it, and it’s barely noticeable, really….
As for the new wine in old wineskins; my next story doesn’t exactly hit the nail on the head, but it is about fermentation. My college roommate was a chemical engineer and wrote his senior thesis on the process of fermentation. We had a functional lab in the cellar of our fraternity house. Bottles, test tubes, Bunsen burners & all the rest. Sometimes the lab got a little crazy, especially when the bottles weren’t corked properly & their seals weren’t secure. More than once we spent time cleaning up the floor of new wine, bottles burst and carpets ruined and what a waste that was!
Now, actually both the cloth and wine stories put the cart in front of the horse, as they say…. They were meant to help illustrate a larger point that Jesus was making, specifically concerning people’s worries that they weren’t fasting as they thought they should have been. These were followers of John the Baptist who sought a new word from Jesus. So, Jesus’ words were meant to give them some deeper insight as to why he was presently with them, but change would soon be coming; he would be gone, and adjustments would need to be made.
Jesus is telling them that when he will no longer be with them, they will need to be resourceful in working with the change to come. Some tried and true things will need to be re-incorporated, and some old things just won’t work. So, also for us; like the saying goes for a new bride, about the ‘old and new, borrowed and blue’, we need to be careful and discerning in our search for just how these words of Jesus apply to our lives.
Of course, these days, we’ve got more change than we know how to deal with, literally. I’ve lost track of time so much since we were last worshipping together that’s it’s gotten pretty ‘homey’ here in my living room, with my weekly flower display. Not that this was ever planned for, or that I want to continue for any longer than necessary (although ‘necessary’ will likely be at home through the end of summer). But now Jesus’ words are worth heeding more than ever, and examining for the sake of what change is really all about. Is it ‘window dressing’, as they say- like the flowers in the field that wither away; or is it about something real that makes a difference in our living for a long time to come?
Oddly enough, back in March, before the Pandemic fell upon us, I pulled a book off my shelf that somehow caught my eye and I read through a couple of chapters. I’ve re-read more of it since. It was written in 2008, with the title The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, by an author with a charming name, Phyllis Tickle, a sociologist of religion, (and a mother of seven children, too!) In her study she observes that every 500 years, more or less, the church, the institutional body of Christianity, a reflection of the ideas and life of Jesus, has, what she calls “a giant rummage sale.” Old traditions and practices are discarded to make room for the new. It’s what happens. Beginning with Jesus and the early church, every 500 years there has been a huge disruption, a major shift in the Christian Church. In 500, there was the fall of Rome and the emergence of the papacy and monasticism.
In 1000, the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity resulted in the Eastern Orthodox Church with its center in Constantinople and the Roman Catholic church with its center in Rome. In 1500, the Protestant Reformation took place, and now in the second millennium after Christ’s birth, we’re next.
Phyllis Tickle says three things happen when the church holds an every 500-year rummage sale. One, a new, vital form of Christianity emerges. Two, the older, dominant form is reconstituted into a less rigid and better expression and it becomes stronger. And three, each time the faith spreads dramatically.
This is news that you most likely wouldn’t have expected; that good things emerge from times of crisis in multiple ways, right? The way things seem to look these days, how can anyone imagine anything positive coming from life as we know it being turned upside down? But the history of those faithful to our Lord’s words and ways repeatedly proves out that seemingly unwanted change can be for the better. None of these 500 year landmark events were simple or easy, and few of the participants knew in the midst of their struggles how it would all turn out. None of us, even the so-called ‘experts’ now living through in the course of this particular Pandemic know how it will play out, (how can we know?), but we can all see parts of the new emerging.
We have reason to have hope. Something new is being born, and we can’t quite see all that it is yet. So we remember Jesus’ parable, that the fabric of life has been torn, and we need something old and reliable for a patch, and also- that the new wine that is being created needs a new container, that an old one just won’t do.
Now, in keeping with the ‘rummage sale’ analogy, there are some things in the church’s attic that we shouldn’t sell, things so valuable and important that they need to be part of what is emerging, to anchor whatever is about to be born to that which is good and faithful and helpful for all.
That’s part of why were are all here- to embody and keep alive the vital and life-giving aspects of our faith and practice. And just as important, we are also here to participate in whatever is emerging out of the ferment that we believe is being stirred up by the Holy Spirit.
So what’s lies ahead for us? What old patch of cloth needs a new place in the torn fabric of life; what new wineskins need to be created to carry the content of our faithful practice?
In part, we’re looking and living it right now; old hymns on a new, digital platform. (Who would have imagined we’d be doing this, at the beginning of March?) And believe me, it’s a balancing act, to both work on the technology necessary to do this- and more, as we move to upgrades in the future and a gradual return to worship together/ “LIVE”… AND to remain faithful and actually GROW in our faith, socially distanced, as we need to be.
In some ways we have plenty of advantages over generations past, but we shouldn’t forget the lessons they share with us.
When you begin to plan for the future, you go back to the past, to the very beginning, to the roots. And not just our roots as individuals, because there we can find ourselves very separated from one another, a single strand of a root that may not be finding much nourishment. But by retracing to the taproot of our traditions, our faith, our confessions, the experiences that have brought us together, we can begin to discover anew who we are and whose we are; what the Spirit of God is stirring up in our times, all based not so much on getting all our beliefs and rules right as on getting Jesus right.
So we remember Jesus’ stories, parables and presence with those who followed, and wondered, and questioned. And as they asked they found that they were not in a vacuum, but were drawn in to Jesus’ special way of welcome and inclusion. Jesus’ way was not for members only, or those judged to be morally pure, but was based on the Lord Jesus sitting down at a table with precisely those people his society called impure, unfit, or unclean.
The church that will emerge from this current ‘rummage sale’ may well become as inviting and inclusive as Jesus was those days long ago, a church that will live out its life in the world as he did, open its doors as open as his arms were, with its heart as open to the world as his was, its resources as invested in caring for the world and its people as his resources of love and passion, of life and blood that he poured out and gave on the cross.
I hope the church that is emerging will be as grateful and joyful and confident as Jesus’ first disciples were after the reality of Easter resurrection sank in, a church that will be compelling because it is useful and faithful to its Lord, a church that knows how to give and to love as our Lord did.
I’m not particularly thrilled in living the way we have to live these days, and we do need to do all these care-filled things, but I am very eager to see what it is that’s beginning to emerge, virtually, and all that comes from your hearts and minds, with your arms and souls opening up to the world, guided each step of the way with Jesus at our side. Indeed, time is our friend, not our enemy, the Lord is indeed with us, and surely the best is yet to come; in Jesus’ name. Amen.