“Wine and Wineskins”
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Luke 5: 33-39
These past weeks we have been talking about James Tinnemeyer’s metaphor of jetsam and flotsam.[i]
This is the metaphor: there is a storm at sea. When the storm is coming, wise sailors throw out of their ships the jetsam…the stuff that is likely to weigh them down and make their ship more likely to take on water and sink. Smart sailors let go of jetsam when a storm is coming.
Flotsam is the stuff that is left over after a ship wreck. It may or may not be very pretty or neat or outwardly desirable. The saving grace of flotsam is that it floats and we can hold onto it to keep ourselves from drowning before we get to shore. Flotsam is what we can hold to after the storm has passed.
And the point of the metaphor is to push us to ask what in our lives – spiritually, physically, emotionally – is jetsam and what is flotsam? What do we need to let go of and what do we need to hang on to?
I’ve had some interesting feedback on this metaphor. Right after the first sermon, someone asked: Couldn’t jetsam serve as an anchor during a storm? I’ve been thinking about that and I’ve decided the answer is: Yes, but only if you get it out of the boat. There are things in life that anchor us that we need to connected to, but we still need to get them out of the boat.
I’ve been thinking that this may be true of those of us who are parents. At some point in their lives our kids need to get us out of their boats, but they still need to stay connected to us, and that can be a tricky maneuver.
Another question was this one: What if what we thought was jetsam becomes our flotsam? For example, some said, sometimes we decide as young adults that church / God / faith are unimportant and we dump them overboard. But later on we need to use them for floatation.
Absolutely. It is normal for us to get jetsam and flotsam mixed up with each other. Wisdom is coming to get a sense of what is jetsam and what is flotsam. As someone else said: All of this is a tricky calculation.
What we have been doing these past weeks is to let this theme of jetsam and flotsam lead us to Scripture passages that have to do with what we need to hold on to and what we need to let go.
There is one more passage this theme takes us to this morning. It is the lesson from Luke in which Jesus says: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.”
As I was studying this Scripture, I realized I am not an expert in sewing. I have no idea why you wouldn’t tear a piece from a new garment and use it to patch an old garment, so we went into our church database to see who might know something about sewing. So, I’ve asked Sylvia Rieling to tell us why we don’t use new material to patch an old piece of clothing.
As I was studying this scripture, I also realized that I am not an expert on wine. I have no idea why you wouldn’t put new wine into old wine skins. So I was thinking who might be an expert on wine in our congregation and I recalled that one of our members is about to have a book about alcohol published. Garret Peck’s book The Prohibition Hangover is about to be published by Rutgers Press.
So I asked Garrett if he might help us understand why we shouldn’t put new wine into old wineskins.
This is a lesson about holding on and letting go. Let’s look at it in its context.
In this section of Luke, Jesus is undergoing a season of criticism. One criticism after another – “Why do you heal on the Sabbath?” “Why do you forgive sins when only God can forgive?” “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Chapter 5 of Luke is Jesus responding to one criticism after another.
The final criticism in chapter 5 (the criticisms continue into Chapter 6) is this: “John the Baptist’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.”
In other words, the criticism was that other religious people acted like we expect religious people to act. They prayed a lot and fasted and acted holy. Jesus’ disciples act like regular people who like to have a good time in life.
It was a criticism of Jesus.
Jesus answers the criticism first of all with a sort of joke. He says, People at a wedding shouldn’t act like people do at a funeral. It would be impolite for people at a wedding to act as if it were a funeral. Luke compares Jesus’ presence in the world to a wedding and says it is inappropriate to act like you are at a funeral when you are at a wedding. It is a joke.
But then Jesus gets a little more serious, and he talks about sewing patches and putting wine into wineskins.
What he is talking about is holding on and letting go…continuity and discontinuity…change.
Change is always a struggle between holding on and letting go. The struggle of some of Luke’s readers in the first century was the struggle between holding on to and letting go of the old religion. Luke uses Jesus’ quotes to say what he believes – that in order to wear the new clothes of Jesus and drink the new wine of the Jesus movement you’ve got to let go of the old religion. You can’t use Jesus to put a patch on the old religious ways of thinking. You can’t put the new wine of the Jesus movement into the wineskins of the old religion.
It was a struggle for the early church. So many – maybe everybody – wanted to have to Jesus and hold onto the old religion at the same time. This is why Jesus says that “no one, after tasting the old wine, wants to drink the new.” Nobody really likes change because change always means letting go, and nobody likes to let go.
I used to see this all the time when I was on conference staff working with local congregations who were in decline. The story was often the same from congregation to congregation. We want to grow, they would say. We want to reach new people. We’ll do anything.
And then when we’d work together on what it would take to do that, often the price was too high. Sometimes we’d say, you’ve got to let go of this building and move to a new location, and people would say, “But my parents were married in this building.” “My children were baptized in this building.” Yes, we’d say, but it only holds 60 people and there is no space for a Sunday school or nursery. More often than not, people could not let go. The old wine tasted better.
Luke was using Jesus’ sayings to make an organizational point. You can’t change without letting go of the old ways, the old institutions, the old structures.
But I want us to think about it more personally this morning. It is also true in our personal lives. Change in our personal lives requires more than a patch. In our personal lives we can’t put new wine into old habits, old ways of living, old assumptions and old securities.
Some changes in our personal lives change everything.
Our Pre-Cana couples are aware of this, maybe increasingly aware of it by the day. Getting married or entering a committed relationship changes everything. We were talking last night during the Pre-Cana weekend about what happens with old friends when you get married. We want to keep our old friendships and we can, but they change in profound ways. Our relationships with our families of origin change. Everything changes.
We can’t get married and have it be a patch job. We can’t put new wine into our old lifestyles. Our lifestyles change when we enter into a committed relationship. We may not like the change, but it just has to happen.
Marriage and committed relationships require letting go so that we might hold on to one another.
Becoming a parent changes everything. I am watching my son and daughter-in-law learn that these days. In some ways it is a good thing that parents don’t really know how much becoming a parent changes everything in advance.
Spiritual change in our lives changes
everything. I was thinking this week about a story our Bishop, Bishop Schol
tells. Before he was a bishop, Bishop Schol helped to found the Shalom
Movement within the
He said he’d come if he could bring two people form the church he was serving at the time with him to share in the experience. We said okay.
He told the two people that he brought with
After the trip was over, the two people came to him and said, “This experience has changed our lives.” Bishop Schol said, “Sure, I know.” They said, “No, you don’t understand. This experience has really changed our lives.”
I think of that story whenever I run into one
of those two people. Before he went on that trip he did accounting for a
corporation. Today he is a pastor in
Annie Dillard says we church-goers are like children playing with TNT. She says:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[ii]
God does this still today. God draws us out to where we can never return. When we allow God to encounter us, we can’t put our lives back again into the old wine skins, a patch on our old clothes is not enough. It is why we so often work so hard at not letting God get too near us in church or elsewhere, isn’t it? There is too much we might need to let go of.
Jesuit Volunteers who work for a year or two after college in poor communities in our cities wear T-shirts that say, “Ruined for Life,” because they say they will never be the same again. ASP has the possibility of changing everything. Alex Marvin, who participated in ASP with our youth group, is spending his summer vacation on staff there.
What we hold on to and what we let go…it is a tricky calculation. But this is the message of Jesus’ metaphor of patches and wine. We can’t hold onto one thing without letting go of another. As opposed to the message of the culture in which we live, we can’t have it all.
In marriage and committed relationships, we say in the vows that clinging to one means leaving all others behind.
The Bible says that we can not serve two masters – God and money. Bob Dylan says you’ve got to serve somebody. The Bible says: Choose this day whom you will serve…(Joshua 24: 15)
Last fall we had a series of house meetings. The theme of the meetings was the Potter’s Hands, which was a sermon series we were doing at the time. At the house meetings we recited together the words of the song: “Spirit, of the Living God fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” One of the questions we asked those who came to the house meetings was this – When in your life have you experience the Spirit of the Living God melting, molding, filling or using you?
The stories we heard were profound. It reminded me of the business we are in. It is not to run a church. It is not to fill pews. It is not to balance budgets, although all those things are good and necessary. They are not our core business.
Our core business is to connect people to the spirit of the living God. And when that happens it is TNT. The old clothes don’t fit. The old wineskins burst. It is a flotsam we will let go of all the jetsam to hang on to.
May it happen to you and me. May it happen again to you and me.