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Old and New Wineskins

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Oct 14

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-8 and Matthew 9:9-17

A few weeks ago —it was actually Regathering Sunday on September 9, just a few minutes before our service— I went into my office to off take my sport coat and put on my robe. Reaching to grab it off the hook inside my door, I heard a terrible sound (like this). In case you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been wearing my robe this fall, now you know! I ripped it. And not just a little bit, I literally tore it to shreds - the fabric all along the back gaped open in several places with threads hanging out everywhere. Goods news is that I wasn’t too surprised. The last time I tried to get it dry cleaned I had to take it to three different places before I could find someone willing to risk the process because they saw how worn the fabric had become and how many hidden patches were already holding it together! As many of you know, the robe first belonged to my father who was also a minister and who died when I was in high school. At my ordination nearly 20 years ago, my mother came into the chancel at Hancock Church in Lexington and draped it around my shoulders. I loved that robe, the weekly reminder of my dad. I loved the color of it; one doesn’t see many gray robes these days. And now, it is quite simply beyond repair. I wasn’t and haven’t been especially emotional about it. The robe served its purpose and then some. I’m grateful for it. And it didn’t take me long before I came to wonder if there was in this event an invitation or opportunity for some spiritual reflection. Maybe, I thought, God is trying to tell me it’s a good time to assess the old ways I’ve worn my faith and ministry and perhaps to find some new ones.

When I saw Perry’s bulletin cover design and Dave’s poem (heartfelt thanks to you both, by the way) I knew I wanted to preach on our text for today— the parable of old and new wineskins. I thought I recalled something about garments therein as well. Sure enough! Verse 6. “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.” Pretty close, right? If the cloth fits (ba-dum-tsss)... Ultimately, the parables of the garment patch and the wineskins are given in response to a question about Jesus and his followers’ practice of fasting, or lack thereof. The meaning has less to do with wine and dress than with what we do when we encounter discontinuity between old and new. In this case, it has to do with religious observance. Were Jesus and his followers eschewing fasting altogether or were they finding new approaches to it? In verse 17, it seems Jesus is as much trying preserve the old as to make way for the new. He is not here looking for a full-fledged departure from Jewish custom nor some “out with the old, in with the new” replacement strategy. No, the rich past and traditions of whatever wineskins or garments ought not be abandoned but continued, and fulfilled albeit in new forms. He is saying, in essence, let old and new coexist —and here I quote the end of verse 17— “so both are preserved!”

In so doing, he seems to be very much standing in line with, and perhaps even assuming the mantel of, his ancestral prophet, Isaiah. For what does Isaiah say: “Is that the sort of fast that pleases me—a day when people humiliate themselves, hanging their heads like a reed, lying down on sackcloth and ashes?” Here again, both garments and fasting are used as symbols of traditions in question for being too old-school, too pro-forma. Isaiah and Jesus are clear: God desires not merely outward signs of piety and sacrifice— the sackcloth burlap and starvation may go too far, may be too much about appearances and the ego’s drive for recognition, and not enough about the soul’s drive for inner and social transformation. “Check out our compostable goods and fair-trade coffee after church. We’re good, right?”

It helps to consider the audiences in these stories. Both Isaiah and Jesus are speaking in direct reference to the power structures of their days. Remember how the gospel story began? “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Faced with violent forces of empire, corruption amidst religious and political authorities, staggering inequality, blatant disregard for the least of these, these divine prophets are calling not for an end to fasting altogether but for a radically new and different form of it— for new and different ways of wearing one’s faith, new and different ways of holding whatever precious, liquid grace God may have for their individual and collective cups. Isaiah is clear about what the fasting should be about: “This is the sort of fast that pleases God: Unshackle the chains of injustice! Break every yoke! Share your food, shelter and clothing! Do this...and your healing will break forth like lightning! Do this...and…[I love this line] your integrity will go before you, and the glory of God will be your rearguard.”

Again, remember the audiences. They were both talking to people of relative privilege, people who had freedom and houses where they could host dinners, people who had food to share or perhaps connections with lawyers and authorities who could spring their friends and family if they got into any trouble. In other words, Jesus and Isaiah were talking to folks like most of us here gathered, and specifically to folks like me who dress up in robes. Clearly those conversations weren’t just about what people were wearing or drinking! Jesus was using those everyday symbols to teach them something profound about the new and much different life and lifestyle he was asking them to adopt, a life wherein healing and housing and food and freedom could be shared by all! If any real healing is to break forth in this world, it will require a wholesale repackaging and renewing of our lives— not just the same old, same old! Not just a little garment patch here or there, but a whole new container in which to hold and organize our lives, a whole new look, a whole new lifestyle! Fast like this and you will be called the repairers of the breach, Isaiah goes on to say. Wear your faith like this, and you will be restorers of the torn-to-shreds fabric of democracy! Try to keep going on with business as usual, thinking the current ways you carry your spirits will suffice and...pay the price— no more garments, no more wine, you won’t even have a cup to hold it!

We get the pattern! We get it because we are feeling it increasingly in our lives and our world all around us! We are seeing it in the old wineskins of white and male led power structures and of climate change denial. These may be appearing to hold strong for now but we can sense those skins stretching and the fabric is straining before our very eyes! There’s a sense that we are living through a time of profound discontinuity. The reason we still have threats of walls going up is that there is real fear that those in power are losing it, and at some level they are! Let’s be clear: new walls and new ways of excluding marginalized voices, of redistricting minority votes, of walling off immigrants, of taking food from the poor and protections from the planet, of inflicting ongoing racial terror on black and brown bodies are not the new wineskins Jesus has in mind. These are most definitely NOT the fasts that God chooses, ones that only serve to bloat the egos of those in power.

Henry David Thoreau once quipped in Walden: "Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles."

Just so, old chap! The language is almost quaint but I’m taken by his word choice. Before we can find a new garment to wear, a new bottle for our wine, we must so conduct, so enterprise, in other words, live, in a way that we feel like a brand new people. If all this tearing, shredding and stretching sounds painful, that’s because it is! Change is hard! But Jesus and Isaiah are right here guiding us to it and through it, offering exactly the words of faith and hope and clarity that we need to face into and be transformed by this current tumult and by God’s gracious powers at work herein. Here there is ages old wisdom made fresh for our ears and thank God some are already tuned to it, paving the way towards more sustainable and cooperative ways of living.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I’d feel about my dad’s robe ripping to shreds if I felt like I was the same person I was 20 years ago. If nothing else, needing a new one has me wondering about how I have changed and the further changes God is calling me to make as I approach the second half of my career. My gut tells me to get a robe (and not just because my gut is a good bit larger than my dad’s ever was)! My instincts tell me it’s time and probably long overdue. In fact, I already ordered it. I called the company and they told me where I could find the purchase number inside the lapel. I gave it to them and they were able look up the original order in their hard copy files from way back in 1985, six years before my dad died! Cool, right? We confirmed the style, updated the size, picked a similar gray fabric. It should be here in a few weeks. But... if the only change is the robe, I will have squandered the invitation! I believe that with the literal levies breaking repeatedly all around us, God is asking me and asking us to change our lives at a far deeper, almost cellular level. I’d just as soon ignore these voices, but they keep getting louder. And I believe it has a lot to do with asking ourselves what are we willing to relinquish, what are we willing to give up, and let go of, if not now, then in 2 years, 5 years, and 10 years? If we think the old wineskins are bursting now… What are we willing to relinquish? Our daily comforts? Our security? Our food and shelter, assuming we have enough to share? Our cars? Our houses? If you think I’m sounding too radical, don’t take it from me. Take it from those in Florida or the Carolinas who woke up this morning a mile down the road from the utter bull-dozing, neighborhood-flattening level devastation caused by Hurricane Michael or Florence. Imagine the moral demands we would feel to share what we have if all the houses and apartments and schools in East Cambridge were wiped off the map. Take it from the Manhattan-sized glaciers that are calving and breaking off of Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Shelves. Take it from this week’s UN report on Climate Change that tells us if we don’t effect drastic and unprecedented change right now we will see cataclysmic effects on our entire planet within just 20 years. I quote: “Climate change is occurring everywhere. To survive we need rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of our society!”

The question before me and before us all is this: is it time for us, as individuals, as a church, as a wider society, to start wearing our faith and values and lifestyles in radically new and different ways? To put it another way: where are we feeling like the old ways are being stretched and worn thin? And what new kind of fast, new kind of garment, and new and radically different containers for our lifestyles are we be called to try on?

Beloved church, I know we can do this! We have the wisdom— God’s word and God’s lasting truth can be trusted, come what may. We have God’s gracious powers in which we can always find our shelter, come what may! We have the infinitely motivating resources of our love for our children and their children, and of our compassion for others. We have the strength of this community and our partners who are leading the way, those who have endured cataclysmic events of genocide and slavery and who can still find joy and song and Sabbath and freedom. The time is now to recognize that the old garments have served their purpose, the old wineskins are ready to burst, thank God. The time is now to embrace all the more dearly the traditions of our faith that will strengthen our minds and hearts. The time is now to find hope and comfort there as we live into new ways of clothing and structuring our lives, as we make the rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes that are being demanded of us. Rest assured, people of God, when —not if, when— we do this, whenever we do this, our healing too will break forth like lightning, our integrity will go before us, and the glory of God will be our rearguard, come what may. Thanks to be God. Amen.

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