Feeling Stretchy?

Here’s Sermon #2 from my homiletics class. I delivered it this past Wednesday.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy or watching the movies, you’ll understand that there is an impressive depth of language and description used in the story. If you haven’t gotten a chance to read the books, I highly recommend it as a joy in fine use of language and incredible invitation into narrative. There is a particularly poignant scene, which appears in the early parts of the first story, The Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo Baggins is sharing a concern with his old friend Gandalf. He has been experiencing an weariness and dissatisfaction in his soul and to explain this sensation he describes himself as feeling like “too little butter scraped over too much bread.” The image is powerful and clear. After reading a phrase like that I can easily identify that feeling in myself. It is not uncommon for me to feel that overextended, maybe even overcommitted feeling in my job, the good things of ministry God has called me to, maintain my relationships and friendships, getting my schoolwork done, and being a good husband. And I’m sure many of you have felt that same thin and stretched sensation that Bilbo described. There is something about a powerful metaphor that just grabs us and rings out “me too!” I like this quote because it drove me back to a similar quote made by Jesus in his early ministry. It is something that surprisingly has come up in several different places in my own study in the last two weeks. It popped up in my Old Testament class and I studied it with my college students. As I looked through the passage, the vivid imagery (which Jesus is a MASTER at using) struck me just as Tolkien’s imagery in his novel.

The passage in question is from the Gosepl of Mark, the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  It is at the very end of the second chapter, so it come very early in Jesus ministry. Up to this point, Jesus has been demonstrating his authority to the people as both a king and a savior, healing people of diseases, teaching with authority, and even forgiving sins. Throughout the section his actions and words are questioned by the teachers of the law (as well as the common people who are amazed at what he is doing) and in one such case, the case in hand, Jesus responds with a very odd metaphor. It is not explained and it uses common day imagery that people would understand.

 21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. 22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

            Now we’ve probably heard this passage before. Jesus is using metaphor in a very interesting way. Just looking at this particular passage by itself, we notice a contrast taking place between that which is new and that which is old. The words used here are very descriptive and are rich in meaning. There is some masterful wordplay being played out here in this short metaphor that Jesus is using. If only we could be as intentional. There are two words in Greek used in this passage that are translated as new, kainon and neon. The two words both imply something new or novel, but the second also implies something fresh or young something untested. The word to describe something old is also interesting, palaious, a word which not only implies something that is old, but something weathered and even worn out.

We are seeing two iterations of the same metaphor, cloth patching a hole and wine being fermented in wineskins. Now believe it or not, I have some experience patching holes in jeans. Throughout college, I managed to make a couple of bucks off of people who need buttons sewn back on and I fancied myself a beginner seamstress. And every time I put a patch on a pair of jeans (rather frighteningly I might add), I thought about this passage. I didn’t understand it, but I thought of it. Of course, now I know, you would never use unshrunk cloth because it would tear away from the worn in pants when you washed it. The word used for tear here is schisma, which means to tear or to be divided or even of dissention.

And I’ll also have to admit I am an amateur winemaker as well. I produced my own wine last year and while it turned out much higher proof than I originally intended (due to my inexperience and an extra two months of fermentation), I learned something valuable about the fermentation process. Wine is produced by a yeast growing in a bottle of grape juice. The yeast eats the sugar from the grape juice and produces alcohol. This all needs to take place in a closed system because oxygen interacts with the wine as it is being made and will sour it and if an airborne bacteria were to So the bottle needs to be closed up, but the yeast doesn’t just produce alochol. It also produces carbon dioxide. So just sealing the bottle off won’t work because then the glass bottle would explode and I’d end up with spoiled wine all over the floor with exploded glass everywhere. So while the wine was sitting and fermenting, I had to have a good seal over the top and a ventilation tube which allowed the carbon dioxide to escape (a byproduct of the bacteria producing alcohol in the grape juice). I used alot of fancy plastic tubes and glass mason jars and it made our kitchen look a little like a chemistry lab for a couple of months, but in the time of Christ this technology didn’t exist. So they used animal skins sewn closed to allow the fermentation process to take place. And since you don’t want any contamination (you are growing an organism after all) it has to be sealed. In this case, the leather of the animal skin would expand and bloat, getting stretched out as the bacteria produced carbon dioxide. When the wine was done, they could pierce the skin, release the gas and enjoy the wine. Once a skin had been used once, it was already stretched out and if someone tried to reuse it, the skin would have nowhere to stretch to and would eventually tear, spilling the wine out or allowing for contamination ruining the batch. The word used in this passage to describe this bursting is rehchei, which means to rend or burst, or even to dash (like to smash on the rocks).

So here we are seeing something new being introduced to something old and there not being enough give in the materials to allow for a good interaction. This leads to tearing, or division, bursting and a violent throwing down. If we were just to stop here and sit with the passage, Jesus would have done a great job describing a truth in the physical world. YAY, physics! But to really get at the point of what Jesus is talking about, we have to look at the bigger picture. Why is Jesus using this example? In order to see that we have to look at its position within the narrative of the gospel of Mark. He doesn’t explain his metaphor precisely, but the passage iteslf is sandwiched between two stories of Jesus interacting with the questions of the Pharisees and teachers of the law and I see this nifty little visual image as his answer.

Right before this passage, Jesus is questioned in regards to why his disciples do not fast like the disciples of John the Baptist or the Pharisees (who we know from Luke’s gospel fast twice a week!). Immediately following this passage are two stories about Jesus and the Pharisees centered around how to observe the Sabbath and what is lawful to do on the Sabbath as well as what the intention behind the Sabbath is. All of these stories are centered the current religious practices and disciplines of the Jewish culture when Jesus was interacting with them They were rituals and practices that had been set in motion since ancient times, handed down by God to his people of Israel as a means to get to know him and live in his honor, set aside.

For the Pharisees, these were normal components of their religious life, as common to us today as participating in Sunday morning worship at church, or taking part in communion, spending time in intentional prayer and fasting seeking God’s will, or being involved in a small group Bible study, or spending devotional time reading My Utmost for His Highest, or serving the poor on Thanksgiving, or reading through the Bible in a year. These were the practices of God’s people, something that they were accustomed to, something that they were comfortable with. And into the dialogue, Jesus shares a story about patched clothes and spoiled wine and doesn’t give us a lot more than that.

So for us today, as Jesus is exploring the rituals and worshipful practices of his time, he notes that sometimes old structures and forms encounter new ideas and perspectives. Simply put, this is a statement about how the old and the new will come into conflict. Whether this is Jesus prophetically looking to the interaction and irritation that the Pharisees will be and find in him as he challenges their assumptions about God and his people or a prophecy to us today as we see conflict in our churches, our homes, our classes and our lives, it is hard for me to place myself in this metaphor.

Am I an old wineskin? Have I become settled in my ways and comfortable in my theology that when new ideas or situations arise, my first response is for the dang kids to get off of my proverbial lawn? And if I am an old wineskin, is that such a terrible thing? Everyone knows that the best wine is aged. New wine is nice, but the expensive stuff that people who really get wine appreciate (which I don’t), is the aged stuff. Isn’t it worth clinging to the tried and true approaches to spirituality and spiritual practices and doctrine that are established in years of tradition within the church and the Jewish community before that? Is Jesus trying to say that I need to get ready to accept new stuff all the time and focus on doing my theological stretches to keep my wineskin supple. I don’t see that in the text. What I do see, is an acknowledgement of conflict, which in this case leads to tearing or division.

This strikes home pretty hard for me and my church in Danville. We are in process with our denomination, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, of seeking gracious dismissal and trying to navigate the rough waters of emotional and financial division from our parent organization. This is something our leaders prayed about for a long time and sought to compromise and reconcile, but eventually it became clear that we could not stretch any further as a people and we needed to tear. I grew up in a non-denominational church and have always had major issues with the splits and divisions that I read about in the denominations all around me. As we are working as people of God, serving his children in his churches today, it is important for us to know that sometimes division, schisma, will come to us. I got really depressed thinking about this. I hate to be the bringing of doom and gloom when our business as the church is the business of preaching reconciliation between God and man and it pains me to think that sometimes we cannot reconcile between each other, but when we look at how Jesus interacted with the Pharisees and their rigid expecations and understanding of God, he broke off. We see a major division between Jesus and the teachers of his day and as people serving the church, we may see major divisions in our own day.

I think the metaphor here is poignant and the real question for us is not whether we are an old wineskin or a new wineskin, but when it comes to our interaction with each other, do we need to stretch or break? Throughout my time in seminary and perhaps you’ve felt this too, there have come times when something I’m learning in my classes or a discussion I’ve had with a classmate from a different church background really doesn’t fit my concept of how things work. It feels really uncomfortable and I don’t like. Like when you swallow a bite of food that you haven’t finished chewing completely and you can feel it sliding the whole way down, it’s unnerving. That’s what my seminary experience has felt like from time to time. If your experience in school and even just as you live life in the church is anything like mine, you’ve encountered many situations where you have been unsettled by what you heard or learned.  In all of those situations, discernment is required, but it is important to not too quickly decide to split. Alot of good wine gets lost that way.

Something that has been getting a lot of press lately is some controversy that has erupted in evangelical circles over a new book coming out by Rob Bell, a pastor in Michigan. His new book is titled Love Wins and is a discussion over God’s judgment, the idea of heaven and hell and Christian writers all over the internet have widely discussed how Rob Bell has become a universalist and how his new book is going to declare universal salvation. Lots of people are concerned for him and his church because of how many people not only attend his church, but also listen to him through the internet. And all of this has come through before the book has even come out.

Rob Bell is a large part of the emergent church, a group of christians and seekers who are looking to try and bring christianity from a modern perspective into the postmodern. His use of art and video in his communication style is inspiring and it is very effectively drawing many people in. Whether or not his new book is heretical really remains to be seen, but the conflict and swelling of the wineskins of our Christian culture is palpable right now. Personally I’ve decided to wait until the book actually comes out to weigh in, but there is a strong sense of dismissal, disapproval and judgment coming from the established more traditional evangelical circles.

We as followers of Jesus are responsible to think. To think about the ideas that we take in. To decide whether we need to stretch our understandings to incorporate new perspectives and situations or whether bursting and dividing, schism really, is the answer. This is something that takes strong discernment. Some of you right now may feel thin and stretched, just like Bilbo said to his friend. It’s an exhausting feeling. And my prayer for each of you is God’s wisdom as you decide whether you can accomodate or whether you need to separate in the face of new ideas. New ideas could be fads blowing up in the wind that will pass (since aged wine is in fact tried and true and established) or they may be a new movement as God is working in a fresh way. That is something we have a responsibility to work through, for ourselves (lest we explode) and for the people we serve.




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