August 23, 2015
The church was beautiful once. It was beautiful with its high vaulted ceilings, tall and imposing pulpit, and its ornate altar and communion rails. But its beauty was marred by the scaffolding and tarps hanging to keep people away from the dangerous spots where rainwater had seeped through the battered old roof. In one corner stands a large board with a thermometer painted on it, and the words, “Fix Our Roof.” The lines of the thermometer are an indication of how much money is needed. The lines are filled in with red to show how much money has been raised. The red fill wavers at the bottom, while the empty lines run all the way to the top. The sanctuary, which had the capacity to seat hundreds of people, now hosts only a few parishioners. The nuns who live in the convent attached to the church fill only a few pews.
The church was beautiful once, but the neighborhood outside changed and the church had not kept pace. Their neighbors are poor, struggling, and many are indifferent to a church that seems so different and removed from their reality. The church cannot compete with the adult movie theaters and bars that surround it. The streets are not safe for the sisters in the convent, so a large fence, reinforced with wire, keeps the sisters away from the streets and the streets away from the sisters.
The church was beautiful once, but it is in disrepair, physically and perhaps spiritually as well. It no longer carries any meaning or relevance for the people outside of its walls, and the ones who live inside the walls are safe, but are they really living?
Everything changes when a lounge singer on the run from Reno shows up at their door, posing as a nun for protection from her murderous, mobster boyfriend. Her presence shakes up the convent, the church and the nuns. She ends up becoming the new director for the convent choir. She not only teaches the sisters how to sing, she introduces the secular into the sacred. The music changes, and when the music changes other things begin to change as well. This lounge sister becomes the bridge between the world outside the convent and the world inside. The convent is shaken up and things begin to happen; new things.
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m describing the movie, Sister Act, not our church. I have a lot of favorite movies, but this is one at the top of the list. Not only have I watched this movie for the pure entertainment of it, but in the early years of my ministry I watched key scenes from it at different conferences on church growth and evangelism. It was seen as an analogy for the new thing that could happen in churches, especially when you introduce new ways of worship and new music.
This may be a movie, but the description of the church in the movie sounds a lot like ours, doesn’t it? It was Roman Catholic and we are firmly Presbyterian, but the physical problems with the building resonate with our reality here. It is this reality that is the key factor in our decision to leave this building. It is this reality that is pushing us to do a new thing.
As I said, Sister Act was often used as an analogy for how church growth could happen. In the movie, once the approval was given for this new style of music to continue, the door of the convent opens – literally and figuratively – for other new things to take place. In a wonderful montage the nuns paint a mural, they go out the street and meet people. They host an outdoor soup kitchen. They create a playground complete with an old VW Beetle for the children to play in and around. The sisters are renewed just as they contribute to the renewal of their church and the neighborhood around them. And the music … the new music continues to bring more and more people to the church. Those empty lines on the thermometer are soon filled to the brim with red. Even the pope hears of the church and its choir and plans a visit while he is in the United States.
This works great in a movie. Just change one thing and the rest falls into place. But movies and real life don’t always match. How wonderful it would be if these next months were just collapsed into a really cool montage. It would start with yesterday’s packing party and end with all of us in a brand new church, filled with people, young and old. I’ve even been thinking about the soundtrack that would score that montage. I’m hearing it beginning with Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground, then it fades into a mixed Motown medley and ends with a little Jackson 5.
But real life tends to be montage-free. So leaving this building, moving to our temporary home on Main Street and finally landing in someplace new is going to be a challenge. Just packing up and moving is a challenge, much less the emotional adjustment period we are about to enter into. These next months will not be a neat collection of moments backed by a hopping soundtrack. What we are doing is a new thing. New things are good. New things are necessary. New things are hard. New things usher in grief for the old things.
I also don’t want you to think that my choice of illustrations was a way to say, “If only.” If only we had tried that new choice of music. We have wonderful music in our church. If only we had adopted that new worship outline. I love our worship. If only. If only. If only. It is true that focusing on the if only’s in life will make you nuts. The if only’s keep you from living in the present with gratitude and anticipating the future with joy. Whatever our collective if only’s about our congregation may be, this sermon is not about them. The truth as I see it is that this building is an old wineskin.
I have heard and read this passage from Matthew’s gospel, as well as the parallel passages in Luke and Mark, dozens of times. New wine into old wineskins was another catchphrase for church growth and renewal in the early days of my ministry. But as many times as I’ve heard this phrase, read it and seen it used, I didn’t know what wineskins were. I certainly didn’t know why new wine would make them burst.
A wineskin at the time of Matthew’s gospel was made of organic material, such as animal skin. A wineskin was not used just to transport wine from one place to another. It was used to ferment wine. It would have to be made ready for that new wine and fermentation. It would have to be washed and stretched out, and then could new wine be added. Yet the fermentation process was hard on a wineskin. Fermentation made the skin brittle. Once the brittleness set in, it would be unable to stretch to allow for fermentation of new wine. Hence, Jesus’s words about putting new wine into an old wineskin; the old and brittle wineskin will burst if new wine is added. It would be unable to bear it.
Our church is an old wineskin. It is beautiful and beloved and our hope is that it will be made into a new wineskin for someone else. But for us it is an old wineskin. We can try and try to make it hold new wine, but what we are experiencing is an old wineskin that cannot be stretched one inch further. It just can’t. That is why we are doing what we are doing. That is why we are taking the bold step to move, to change, to re-imagine who we are as a congregation. But we love this old wineskin. Letting it go is a loss and we are all grieving, one way or another.
It is easy for me to make the comparison between our building and the wineskin Jesus spoke about. It seems obvious; old wineskin here, new wineskin someplace else. The changes ahead are scary, but we have to leave this old wineskin. But when I envision the changes before us, I think my real fear comes not from the change, not from leaving a building that is an old wineskin. No, I think what I’m really afraid of is that I am an old wineskin. I am afraid that this change will stretch me beyond capacity. I am afraid that I cannot bear anything new. Maybe you have that same fear, whether you have articulated it or not. Change, even when it is for the good, exacts a cost. Not only do we need a building that is a new wineskin, I need to become one myself.
But the good news about the new thing we read of in scripture, both Old and New testaments, is that this newness does not rely on us. It does not come from us. It comes from God. It comes through Jesus. Do we have to be open to the new thing God is doing? Do we have to trust and have faith that God is actually working this new thing through us? Do we need courage to step out on ground we cannot yet see? Yes to all. But even when our trust is weak, our faith falters, and our courage melts within us, grace abounds. God’s grace doesn’t resign us to being old wineskins. God’s grace stretches our hearts and our minds to embrace and believe in God’s new thing, God’s new wine. It is God’s grace that surrounds and embraces us this day. God’s grace will embrace and surround us next Sunday, and every Sunday that follows. God’s grace embraces us and God’s love supports us. We say goodbye today to our beautiful church, this grand and glorious old wineskin. But we, each of us, this congregation, we are forever being changed into new wineskins. We are being stretched and prepared and made whole so that we can welcome God’s new wine. To be continued.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.