August 30, 2015
When my parents moved from Tennessee back to Minnesota, they bought a piece of land in Princeton – a small town north of the Twin Cities – and built a house in a neighborhood that was being newly developed. The land had a small pond on it. When I say small, I mean really small. When I say pond, I mean permanent puddle, but pond sounds more poetic. The first summer they lived there the whole family was gathered. We were joking about their little body of water. Someone suggested that we name it, so we started throwing out possibilities. I’m proud to say that my suggestion of, “On Busse Pond,” seemed to stick.
At first it seemed idyllic to have this little pond in the backyard. But water that sits too long without any kind of disturbance becomes stagnant. After a while the only things that live in stagnant water are insects. While Minnesota may claim the Common Loon as their state bird, the real state bird should be the mosquito. Mosquitos are everywhere in the Land of 10,000 Lakes even when the water isn’t stagnant, so the last thing you want is something that will attract even more of these devil bugs.
Water needs to be disturbed to prevent stagnation. I think people need to be disturbed as well. Even though Jesus doesn’t mention water in this parable about old wineskins and new wine, I wonder if the necessity of disturbance, troubling the waters, might not be an underlying theme of this passage. If not the theme, than the implication of what happens with new wine.
As he did in Matthew’s telling of this parable that we read last week, Jesus states this parable in response to questions about fasting. The disciples of John and the Pharisees frequently fast and pray, but Jesus’ disciples aren’t hungry. They eat and drink. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus answers this by using an analogy of a wedding. If the bridegroom is here, why would you fast? You don’t fast during the wedding feast, do you? You celebrate. You eat. You drink. You rejoice. The bridegroom is going to be taken away soon enough, and then you will fast.
He follows up this analogy with this parable about new and old garments and new wine in old wineskins. In both Luke’s version of this story and Matthew’s, Jesus is not throwing out the tradition of fasting. Fasting was an important part of faithfulness. Jesus fasted. I don’t believe that Jesus was making a case that fasting should cease altogether, but as theologian and preacher Fred Craddock put it, Jesus was pointing out when fasting was appropriate and when it wasn’t. When the bridegroom is in the party hall, you don’t need to fast. But then he ties it to these words about old and new, something that is worn out and something that is fresh. In no way do I think Jesus was setting aside the tradition of fasting or abrogating the Law entirely. I think he was trying to help his questioners understand that this something new God was doing in their midst, this new wine, would re-frame their traditions and reshape their expectations. If they could not see this and open themselves to it accordingly, then a lot of old wineskins were going to burst.
I don’t want to make it sound as though Jesus was telling them that they just need to move with the times. He wasn’t saying they should stop whining about the old; new is always better, or that torn-up old wineskins are the price of the progress. I think Jesus wanted them to grasp that this new wine would completely upend what they once knew and understood. He wasn’t slamming the tradition of fasting, or saying that there was no need for it. Jesus was offering them a way to understand better the power of this new wine.
If you think about it, everything Jesus did leading up to this parable was new wine. He called a tax collector to follow him. That tax collector, whether we call him Matthew or Levi, showed no hesitation in answering the call. Whatever motives we might want to place on Levi for responding so quickly are really unimportant. What is important is that he answered. Not only did Levi answer, he gave a feast, a banquet for Jesus, and invited all of his tax collector buddies. He filled the house with tax collectors and sinners, and Jesus, showing the same lack of hesitation as Levi did in following, took his place among them.
Calling so obvious a sinner, an outcast from the synagogue, was pouring new wine. Eating with a crowd of these sinners was pouring new wine. Eating and drinking instead of fasting, because eating and drinking was the appropriate response, was pouring new wine. Everything Jesus did and said was new wine. Jesus’ actions and words were unexpected. They were unprecedented. They were new wine.
I thought when I began this sermon that I would try and list the new wine that we are about to experience. Just moving into this new space is an act of new wine. But that is as far as my list goes. It’s not that I think this move is the only new wine we’ll experience, I do. But I have no way of mapping out what the new wine will be because I don’t know what it is yet. None of us do. We can speculate and postulate and predict till Bossie, Bessie and Suki – those are cows by the way – come home. But none of us know for sure what shape or form this new wine will take. What we do know is this, whatever this new wine being poured out on us is, it will be unexpected. That’s what makes it new wine.
At the end of this parable, Jesus says one more thing that was not said in Matthew’s version. “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”
All this talk about new wine bursting old wineskins and now Jesus says that the ones who drink the new wine are going to want the old? I realize that when we’re talking about merlot, chardonnay, or pinot that the older the wine is, the better. But I thought that this new wine Jesus spoke of was the superior choice. Why would he add that little caveat about wanting the old?
Maybe Jesus was teasing or being ironic or pessimistic about people’s response to new wine. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Jesus said this because he understood that accepting the new wine would be challenging. Perhaps he understood human nature enough to know that we prefer what we know, that change challenges us, and that when push comes to shove, we want the old wine. It seems to me that Jesus, being fully human, would have understood this. He would have gotten the fact that the transition from being an old wineskin to a new one would take both an open mind and an open heart.
Perhaps he also realized this kind of change was a disturbance. Remember what I said about water that goes undisturbed becomes stagnant? To mix my metaphors, new wine troubles the waters.
Just as I wondered if I was an old wineskin, I also wonder if I have become a little like stagnant water. Maybe I’m more like On Busse Pond than I care to acknowledge. Comfort and ease too quickly becomes complacency. Perhaps the waters of my soul have gone untroubled a little too long. Maybe that’s true for all of us. But stagnant water is not living water.
Jesus pours new wine, Jesus promises new life, Jesus is living water. I know that this change, leaving our building, our church home for so many years, is hard and scary and sad. But maybe there we were merely a pond, stagnating unto death. Maybe here, and wherever we go from here, will help us not only accept the new wine Jesus offers, but it will show us the new wine we can be for others. Our waters have been troubled, but see this water of baptism. This not only symbolizes living water and new life, it is living water. May we be blessed by this living water so that we can be a blessing to others. Let us embrace this new wine being poured in our midst, and then let’s share it, rejoicing, celebrating the new wine we have been given.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.