Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Wine

Luke 5:27-39
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.’”
            Wait. What?
            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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


(This is my upcoming column for the Minister's Corner in the Shawnee News Star, Saturday August 29th)

“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning” Ivy Baker Priest

Í wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” Gilda Radner

            Four years ago this week I moved from Iowa to Oklahoma to answer United Presbyterian Church’s call to serve as their minister. I moved ahead of my family so I could get started at the church and begin the arduous task of finding a house for us. Although I had planned to make the trip in one day, I got started later than I intended so I ended up spending the night in Wichita. The first day of the trip I was so excited at the new prospects and possibilities that lay ahead, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about all that I was leaving behind. But sometime in the night, perhaps in my dreams, my mind knocked down the defenses I’d built. I could consciously choose not to think about who and what I was leaving, but my subconscious would not allow it. I woke up in the morning so homesick and heartsick I could barely breathe. I refused to get out of bed, because I knew that if I got up too soon I would pack up my car and head straight back north. So I lay there until I finally found the courage to continue south to my new church, new town and new life. It was probably one of the hardest moments in my life.

            Obviously, I did finally get up. I drove south. I started at the church, I found a house, my family arrived, and here we are. The personal changes that have happened in our lives in these last four years have been enormous; some of them wonderful, some more painful than we could have imagined. But I am grateful for these four years, for what I have learned, for how I have changed, for every moment I have experienced. That goodbye four years ago closed the proverbial door, but it also opened the promised window to something new.

            If you are a regular reader of this paper, you already know that our congregation is in the process of closing a door. We are leaving our building at 330 N. Beard Street. Housed in this grand and stately building are memories and ministries that span more than a century. This church is not just historic it is history, living history. Yet while the memories of this place remain vivid, the building itself is crumbling. Its age is showing. As a congregation, we do not have the means to slow or reverse the aging process, so we have made the decision to say goodbye. Our last worship service in our sanctuary was last Sunday. Tomorrow, and for all the foreseeable Sundays that follow, we will worship at our new location on 114 E. Main Street.

            This may be a necessary goodbye, but necessity does not diminish the pain at the leaving. What will become of us? What happens next? We can make informed guesses about our new place of worship and our new life as a congregation, but we cannot see into the future. We know that we face a great unknown. At this moment, we cannot fully imagine the next stage of our story. Yet what I find so amazing about the people I serve is their trust that our congregation’s story is not ending. This is merely a plot twist. My folks are faithful, and saying goodbye to this building is a faithful response to God’s continuing call. This goodbye is heart-wrenching. It is painful. But it is faithful.

            So we are closing a door, and we are leaping out in faith, trusting that there is new ministry and new life ahead. We are closing a door, but if you walk down Main Street, you’ll see that the windows of our new home are wide and welcoming. God be with you, or as we say it, goodbye.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Old Wineskins -- our last Sunday in our church building

Matthew 9:9-17
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.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

In the Flesh

John 6:51-58
August 16, 2015

            I’ve been thinking about words again. I like to do that. I’ve been thinking about one word, in particular. That word is carnal. Just saying the word, carnal, especially saying it in church, makes me a little uncomfortable. Since the Middle Ages, the word carnal has borne the connotations of lustful and sensual. I hear carnal, I think of carnal knowledge or carnal desires. The first definition listed in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary matches this understanding. It is “relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites.” From there it goes on to define it as “bodily, corporeal, temporal, and worldly.” Carnal isn’t necessarily a bad word. But my first and foremost association with it is one that relates to lust or fleshly pleasures. I was taught from an early age, overtly and subtly, that if something makes you happy in the flesh, it’s either not good for you or it’s a sin. So imagine my surprise this week when I read the blog of one of my favorite preaching heroes, David Lose, that was entitled, “Our Carnal God.”
            What?! Our carnal God?!  I just felt the earth move. Was that an earthquake, or was it the sound of generations of my deeply devout, Protestant ancestors spinning in their graves? Our carnal God? Maybe Dr. Lose used this language knowing that it might generate that kind of shocked response; or he knew it would be titillating and grab people’s attention. But the truth is, whatever our connotations are of the word carnal, his use of it was spot on. Our God is a carnal God. Why do I say that?  Because there’s another word that has carnal at its root; incarnation. Obviously, as a church of believers in Jesus Christ, incarnation holds a vastly different meaning for us than carnal. Jesus was God incarnate, not carnal. Jesus was the incarnation of God into the world. To my ears, incarnation is far more spiritual, ethereal and godly in tone. Jesus was the incarnation of God into the world. It sounds almost lyrical. But what it really means is that Jesus became God in the flesh. You’re probably thinking, “Of course he did, Amy. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why we’re here?”  But think about what we’re really saying when we speak of Jesus as God incarnate. Think about that reality. Jesus was the flesh of God. But it wasn’t some super-powered flesh. It wasn’t flesh that looked like ours, but it was actually just an illusion or protected by a supernatural force field. It was our flesh. The same flesh that I wear, that you wear. Jesus was the flesh of God.
            The word that is translated as flesh is from the Greek word sarx.” This is also the word that John uses in Chapter 1. “The Word became flesh…” Sarx is an earthier, grittier word than soma, which is translated body. And when Jesus speaks of eating, this isn’t some sort of gentle nibble. This is about chewing, crunching; some translators use the word, gnawing.
            John’s gospel has such a poetic quality. His use of metaphor and layers of meaning is incredible. But these verses are about as hardcore, raw and explicit as any I’ve read. Jesus is speaking to a deeper meaning of what true bread, living bread really is. But the language he uses to describe what it means to partake of this living bread is vivid and graphic.
            “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will lift them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
            In other words, if you want Life, you have to chew on my flesh and drink my blood. Now what would happen if someone were to come in here right now who had never heard of Jesus or John? Would this person think that John’s gospel was ahead of its time in the Zombie/Vampire craze of our culture? Or, would this person assume that Jesus was promoting cannibalism?
            When he speaks these words to the crowd around him, it’s not difficult to imagine them taking a step back and saying a collective, “Well, would you look at the time? It’s been nice talking to you, Jesus, but we have to go now.”  Although we don’t read on to verse 60, the disciples sum all of this up quite neatly when they say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” That’s the understatement of the millennium. Yes, this teaching is difficult. It’s challenging. I have to be honest, I have never preached on this passage from John before, because every three years when it rolls around in the lectionary my first response is always an unequivocal, “Ick!”
            These words of Jesus sound icky. I can’t help it. That is my gut reaction. And yet for the next three weeks we will celebrate communion together. Our liturgy for communion comes from Luke and from Paul, but when I hold up the bread what do I say? “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” And the cup? “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” Do I say those words literally? No. In our denomination, we don’t believe in transubstantiation, which is that the common bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We believe that the spiritual presence of Christ is with us, but not the literal. However, other denominations do believe this. Years ago when I attended a Catholic Junior College, a friend of mine who was Catholic said that whenever he took communion he just shut his mind off to what he was doing. He was raised to believe that it was the body and blood of Christ, but he didn’t want to think about that while he ate it.
            It would be very easy to turn this sermon into a discussion on communion, and the different ways different denominations perceive and observe it. That kind of discussion is important, but as much as I see communion in this passage, I think the crux of it goes back to David Lose’ “carnal God.”
            The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God took on our flesh, our skin, our bones. God became incarnate in the very tissue and sinew, arteries and blood that make up each of us. God became our flesh. The Law forbade the eating of any kind of meat with blood in it, because blood was the life source. To take in something else’s blood was to become like that creature. The blood was the essence and the life of every living creature and human. It seems to me that when Jesus tells the people that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he was trying to get them to understand that in clinging to him, in recognizing God in him, they would take on the life source of God. They would become like the One who sent him.
            Whether or not, we think of communion as a literal changing of the elements into body and blood, as a sign of the spiritual presence of Christ, or as a remembrance of Jesus and his life and death, I believe that communion is a way for us to take in God. It not only helps us to remember that Jesus’ flesh was tortured and killed for the sake of the world, it also reminds us that God put on our flesh. God became incarnate, in the flesh, in our flesh so that we might become more like God.
            Brent told me a story a few months ago about the astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Neal Armstrong may have been the first man to walk on the moon, but Buzz Aldrin took communion on the moon. As I understand it, he had the elements blessed by his minister and smuggled them on board. And on the moon he took communion. I’m not sure what his motivation was for wanting to do this, but it is powerful to think about a man standing on a whole other planet, in our mindboggling big galaxy, in our even more mindboggling big universe and partaking of the ritual that reminds us that Jesus was God in the flesh. In the enormity of space, in that moment when our technology was expanding far beyond anyone’s imagination, Aldrin ate the bread and drank the cup and remembered that Jesus was God in the flesh.
God, our carnal God, our incarnate God took on our flesh with its flaws and frailties so we could take in God. God became like us so we could become like God: compassionate, creative, merciful, loving. God became incarnate out of love so that we could learn how to love. God became like us, in the flesh, so we could become like God.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.