New Wineskins for New wine

A Homily for Mt. Pleasant United Methodist church – January 9, 2011 – by Ms. Nancy Reynolds

IMG_5924For many of us, the transition from full-time vocation into retirement can be quite a challenge. I’m in my second year now and still making the adjustment. From the beginning I’ve celebrated the “gift of time;” the gift of being free to plan my days as I wish. I’ve celebrated being free to get into all those little projects and hobbies around the house that I didn’t have time for before. I remember well the day I decided for certain I would retire. It was three years ago in the spring. I was standing in line at Martins looking at a gardening magazine when I said to myself, “I should have at least one year when I can focus on nothing but my garden while my aging body still permits.” I have that now- I have the time. I have collected “treasured” books on my shelves that I’ve vowed to read in my retirement, and I really AM reading them. What delight! I celebrate being able to schedule travels any time I want and being able to chime into grandkid activities more spontaneously. There is so much to celebrate and it is definitely an exciting time of life.

But, there is also a restlessness and a lot of nagging issues that weigh on my mind – like – I’m not out among new and different people enough – the way I used to be – I’m not feeling especially useful – do I still have purpose – what health issue is going to pop up next – they are coming much more frequently – will I need to make my retirement funds last for 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years and how do I do that. I’m asking if I’m becoming more fearful in general than I used to be. So – to all you young folk out there who wish you were retired, maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be?

But I think my biggest concern in retirement is that my mind will stagnate and my ways will become much more rigid in a very short time. It seems to be a given for so many seniors as they age. I really, really don’t want that to happen. That would be fatal to my being, and especially to my Christian journey. The riches of Christ are just too vast to allow that to happen now. His promise that creation continues in us throughout our lives if we choose it – is too important to me. If I’ve come any small distance in these 66 years, I surely don’t want to give it up now!

The homily today is a reflection on two little parables from the gospels. They appear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I think Jesus is warning us all – young and old – about our tendency to lose our openness to God and settle for a meaningless existence. I realize that the restlessness in my life isn’t new. It’s been there all along – and it will continue to be there until I finally give myself up into Christ’s hands and allow him to truly win me over. According to Christianity’s classic writers, this is what it means to become fully human. I can call myself human now, but to become fully human can only happen when I become like Jesus –transformed into his likeness. I haven’t made it far enough along the road yet to becoming fully human – I still have so, so far to go. I understand that I will be restless until I rest in Him.

From Matthew 9:16 comes the first parable, “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.” And verse 17 says, “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Both these parables come in answer to a question posed to Jesus by the disciples of John the Baptist. The question was “why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” It seems that fasting was a really big deal to the Pharisees in Jesus day.  To fast was to abstain from eating, drinking, bathing, anointing one’s self with oil, and having sex in order to spend time and focus on God. Fasting was intended to be a high ideal in the Jewish religion, but there was an inherent danger. The great danger was that a man might fast as a sign of superior piety, that his piety was a deliberate demonstration, not to God, but to men, of how devoted and disciplined a person he was. It was this wrong kind of fasting that Jesus was addressing and condemning.

Jesus, as you know, always used images and stories that everyone could relate to.  In the first story, he used the old cloth and the new patch. I’m guessing, fabric used is Jesus’ day would easily shrink when it got wet. In the second story, Jesus uses the concept of new wine, old wine, new wineskins and old wineskins.  Of course in Jesus time, wine would have been a staple.  It would have been the primary drink of choice.   Water was not often safe to drink so wine, or fermented grape juice, would be safer to drink.  Wine also had tremendous religious significance especially at the Jewish Passover.  So wine was a part of everyday life and religious ceremonial life during Biblical times.  Wine at that time would have been carried in wineskins not in glass bottles.  And everyone would have known the old wineskins tended to be dryer and more brittle than new wineskins. New wineskins were more flexible and had way more elasticity than old ones.   Now, old wine would have been completely through its fermenting process and would not be producing any gases to expand the container in which it was stored.  So putting it in old wineskins was not a problem.  On the other hand, new wine was still fermenting a little and would produce some gases that would need some room for expanding. Old wineskins would split under the pressure but new wineskins were flexible enough to expand as the new wine continued to mature.

So, what meaning do these stories carry for us? I believe they mean that Jesus is always ready to bring new truth. That He’s always about new creation in us – bringing continual changes of heart. Jesus is making all things new. In Corinthians 2:17 Paul writes, “For if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Jesus pits his own, new way against the old way of the Pharisees and their scribes – and against the stagnation of our minds. Jesus has brought something new, and the rituals and traditions of official Judaism cannot contain it. So the new wine is Christ himself – the Holy Spirit – God. And you and I, who are supposed to be on the receiving end of this new creation, have to be the new wineskins – open minded and ready to stretch ourselves – growing with new truth – growing in the Spirit – growing in faith – becoming fully human. Jesus was perfectly conscious that he came to men and women with new ideas and with a new conception of the truth, and he was well aware how difficult it is to get new ideas into men or women’s minds.

The new patch on the old fabric says, “There comes a time when patching up the old is just plain silly.” Something more drastic is needed. The Jews of Jesus’ day were passionately attached to things as they were. The Law was to them God’s last and final word; to add or to subtract one word from it, was a deadly sin. That spirit is by no means dead in our day. The church throughout history has had a way of clinging to the old. No one wants to recklessly abandon what has stood the test of time, but the fact remains that this is a growing and an expanding universe; and there comes a time when patches are useless, and when persons and a church have to accept the adventure of the new or withdraw into their history, where they worship, not God, but the past.

Jesus talks to us of the New Commandment and the New Covenant. Other books of the New Testament speak of new creation, new humanity, new birth, new self, new song, new name, New Jerusalem, new heaven and a new earth. God’s truth is so earth shattering – so potent, – so mind blowing that old structures can’t contain it. God is moving on in the world in ways we can’t begin to imagine and he can’t be held back. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there is no value in any of the old traditions and old ways of doing things. But we must be able to discern what needs to be preserved and what doesn’t.

We face our New Year – 20 11 – Full of new hope – new opportunity – and the new prospect that we will allow God to fill us with the new wine of his spirit. That we will be receptive – that we will provide the new wineskins to receive it. Will we be finished with just patching things up in our lives? Will we be open to scrapping the old and welcoming the new?

In an issue of the Cecil Whig during the first week of the New Year, six people were asked about their new year’s resolutions. One out of six mentioned something significant that she wanted to accomplish for 2011 – That was – to finish her requirements for teacher certification. Two said they don’t make any resolutions because they know they will break them. One said – to be nice to everybody – one said – be kinder to my husband and wear more make-up, and the sixth said he worked on his weight last year, so couldn’t think of any new ones. I recall reading this and saying to myself, “Come on, people! What meager responses! Is that all there is? Okay, maybe the resolution thing is worn out, but don’t we enter a new year with a little more seriousness about life and living?” “Irresolute is the word that came to me to describe it. We allow our lives to be molded by all the natural forces that act on them like heredity, environment, the people we live with, our past experiences, our education or lack of it. These all contribute to what our personalities are like – not molded by the hand of God but just random – willy nilly – (another good word).

I’d like to close with the image of the Potter from Jeremiah 18:1-6. Imagine God in your mind as the potter. And He is sitting at the potter’s wheel. Imagine that you and I are the clay. God wants us to get on the potter’s wheel. He wants to shape us into Christ-like earthen vessels that can be filled with his indwelling spirit. The success of our life together can only be measured by whether or not we have gotten on the wheel – whether our lives have been changed – It depends on how many of our people have gotten on the wheel – and whether or not we are still on the wheel. We can’t measure success by how many are in Sunday School on a give n Sunday, how many social events we’ve had, how beautiful the choir music is, how much money we make at a supper, how many attended worship, whether we have a contemporary service or a traditional one. All that matters is whether or not we are on the potter’s wheel allowing Him to mold us as is pleasing to Him.

(Jeremiah 8:1-6) – Hear the words of scripture then – “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So, I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

Prayer after the sermon:

Father, we lift up to you this morning, our restless lives. Help us in the New Year to examine all that keeps us separate and distant from you. We say we want to be filled with the new wine of your spirit. We say we want to be the earthen vessels shaped by your hand and yet to give up control seems like a scary thing and – to examine our lives in the light of Christ seems very involved– to work with the fears in our lives, to work with the old wounds seems too threatening, to become repentant and recognize our sin would probably be unpleasant – to take on the work of letting God reveal to us our uniqueness – all seems like too much trouble – meanwhile we do have our diversions and distractions to keep us busy – – and so we settle for so little when we could be living life on a fully human level. God forgive us. Forgive the games we play with you and help us get real. Deep inside is the hunger for you and we know it will never go away until we rest in You. Amen.

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