Text: Luke 5:33-39
The guest preacher today is the Rev. Michael Mair, minister at St. David's Broomhouse Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland.
:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."
:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: The Wonderful Cross (Tomlin et al.)
Confession through Music:Merciful God (Getty/arr. Courtney)
Hymn of Praise: O Jesus, I Have Promised (ANGEL'S STORY)
Offering of Music: I Will Follow (Tomlin et al.)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxolog
Hymn of Sending: He Leadeth Me/The King of Love (Gilmore, Baker; Bradbury)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano
:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
It's so lovely to be with you this morning. Thank you for the opportunity for me to share with you, we so enjoyed it when Robert came to St. David's where I serve, and shared in our worship, so I'm delighted to be here as well.
Now, I don't know if you know this, but Edinburgh in Scotland, is slightly different from Charlotte, North Carolina. I've only been here for a few days - but already one major difference is clear to me. Your weather. As you can see I wear glasses, and for many years I have owned a pair of sunglasses which match my prescription so that I can enjoy the weather and relax in the sunshine without having to squint my eyes to see the way.
In all the years I have lived in Scotland, these sunglasses have stayed very firmly on the shelf, no days quite sunny enough to merit their use. So thank you for the opportunity to finally wear my sunglasses - my optician will be pleased.
But because there is less sun, it’s also colder. I'm not quite sure how you cope in the heat of the summer time, but I find that if it goes above 25 degrees C, which is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I just melt into a sweaty, grumpy puddle. I cope much better in the cold and because our text spoke about old coats - I thought I would bring mine from home.
This is my favourite coat. I found it about two or three years ago in a Charity shop near to where I live, and I discovered it on a mannequin, and let me tell you - it looked great. I was immediately drawn to it and I asked the assistant if I could try it on. She struggled with the mannequin for five minutes, and eventually managed to twist the coat off and handed it to me. I held it in my hands, felt the weight, looked at the fibres as if i knew something about coats and then threw it on.
Well, the coat was just fantastic. The length was perfect for keeping the chill out of the torso, it fit round the middle, which is always an important thing to ascertain, it sat right on my shoulders but as I looked down it was about six inches short on the sleeves. Disaster!
I commented on this to my wife, Laura, who was with me as we played out that conversation between us of - should we get it, despite the sleeves (while both being fully aware that we were buying it anyway) - do you find yourselves having those conversations often? Someone says - should i get this? But you know they've already decided to buy it.
Well we were in the midst of that conversation when another shopper came over to me, took the coat from my hands and said - well, if you aren't going to buy it - I'll take it for my husband, he has shorter arms, and then she looked at me - as if I were a gorilla.
I knew I had a choice, I could stay very British and polite and allow the injustice of a stolen coat, or I could say something and take the coat back. As you can see ladies and gentlemen - I boldly ensured that the coat came home with the right owner, gorilla arms or not.
But of course, when I took the coat home, I had a problem. The sleeves. I went to a tailor and had them taken down, which has been fine - but if you look closely you can see exactly where the old sleeve used to be. The new bit had been protected for the last 20 years, while the old has weathered away - so when Jesus talks about putting new cloth on old clothes, I have this very real example.
When we meet Jesus in our readings this morning he is being asked a question - the pharisees and religious leaders have come to him and say, the disciples of John and our own disciples, they all fast - but yours, they eat and drink? In the ancient world, just like in our day, there were protocols for how you trained someone to complete a role. So just like we have rules and induction training for new members of staff, there were things you did back then.
And if you were a Rabbi, or a traveling preacher like Jesus and John, you ensured your disciples fasted, to test their commitment to the ministry you exercised, and to further their own spirituality. Fasting was as necessary to discipleship as prayer and listening to the teachings of your rabbi. Religious leaders were expected to fast during holy days, and they would whiten their faces with ash so that people could see, just by looking at them that they were fasting, and would presumably be impressed.
But Jesus, he doesn't insist that his disciples follow this tried and tested route. Instead, he feasts with his followers - sharing in their joy.
But the question of fasting that the Pharisees raise is only the topical issue of a much deeper issue - what the Pharisees really want to know is; why Jesus is training his disciples in a different way? Already Jesus has been challenged for naming Levi as a disciple and now he is being questioned about why he trains his disciples in the way he does.
In response to these challenges, Jesus replies in the form of parables, the bridegrooms feast, the old coat and the old wineskin. And if we are not careful, we can assume an easy meaning on the face of these texts. Traditionally they have all been understood to be very simple parables that proclaim that the new thing Jesus is doing is better than the old faith of the Jewish people. The disciples should celebrate with the bridegroom because they won't always have the opportunity to is prophetic to our ears now we know the ending of the story. And the parables of the coat and the wineskins seem to suggest that the new is better than the old, up until that tricky last verse where Jesus proclaims that the Old wine is best of all.
So what is Jesus saying?
I think that Jesus is arguing for a middle way forward, in the first story of the bridegroom and his guests, Jesus speaks knowing what is coming his way. He knows the path he is going to walk and he knows that his time with the disciples will be short. So he wants to spend that time encouraging them, celebrating with them and leading them forward.
But then he goes on to talk about the old and new cloth, and old and new wineskins. Cloth in Jesus day was important. It was a signifier of your status and wealth within the community, and most people wouldn't have very much of it so if you got a rip or tear in your tunic, unless you were wealthy you would have to mend and fix it as best as you were able.
But what you could not do would be to attach a brand new piece of cloth to an old garment, because as soon as you washed that item of clothing the new cloth would shrink, the old cloth would stay the same size and the whole item of clothing would rip and be ruined.
Instead, you had to make new items of clothing out of the new cloth, and if the tear in your old clothes was too bad to mend, then you would put it aside and hope that one day you needed it.
But at no point would you discard the old clothes. We may well throw out our clothes when they develop a hole, but the ancients knew that just because something stops doing what it was made for, that doesn't make it obsolete. Jesus was telling the Pharisees that he was doing something that was different, not a way that needed to replace how they were doing things, but that his way was different enough that it wouldn't sit comfortably with their understanding, and that ultimately could destroy everything
It is the same with the wineskins. The raw products of wine were poured into skins and the natural elasticity of those skins would allow the wines to ferment, but after a while the skins lost their elasticity and if you attempted to use them for making wine, they would burst and you would lose all your wine. But again, those listening would know that you wouldn't throw the skins out - you could coat the inside of the skins with pitch or tar and reuse the skins for holding absolutely anything. Sometimes, old wineskins were more valuable than new wineskins!
So what does this mean for us today? Well it can mean that the things of the past can still be useful. In my community in Edinburgh we are discovering that we need to do new things to engage with our community. I serve a community in Broomhouse where generations of people have not set foot inside a church, where the secularisation of culture has pervaded our land so that Biblical knowledge is a fraction of what is was 20 years ago and where scandals have torn across the face of every institution in our land so that the institutional church is generally distrusted. No longer can we sit back and expect people to come to us, rather, we need to be active and engaged with those living around us.
We started an event called the Tent, which we run in a local park. We have partnered with local churches in the area - about 7 or 8 in all and we put up a great big Tent, 9m x 24m and fill it with activities for the community. In the morning we ran a Vacation Bible School, in the afternoon we had community groups come and lead activities - a dance class led a dance workshop, a supermarket showed us how to decoate cupcakes, and the scouts showed off their survival skills.
In the evenings we ran community events, Pub Quizzes, Pedal Powered Cinemas, a Jazz night, un under 18s disco and a Ceilidh. Over the weekend we held a family fun day, complete with bouncy castles, face painting and games and on the Sunday, we all cancelled our own individual church services and held one joint service of worship. Through the course of the week, we were in touch with 1000 people, from children to adults, reaching out and engaging.
[click to see Michael's 8min. presentation on "The Tent" at a recent conference]
But we can't just run the Tent and cancel our Sunday gatherings, the new must sit alongside the old. We can't dismiss the old thing, just because it is different. And we can’t expect that the new thing will somehow automatically lead into the old thing - we are not expecting anyone from the tent to start joining us on a Sunday morning - if they do, great, but that's not our main effort.
Of course, there comes a time when it is time to stop what we have been doing. I think that's one of the most difficult things we can do as Christians, recognise when it's time to stop. There will be a day when my coat, as wonderful as it is, is threadbare and useless. No matter how comfortable that coat is, I will have to stop using it, and buy one that's new. And there will be programmes we run in church which have become threadbare, that no longer occupy the place they used to, we have to be open and honest enough to see when that is the case - and sometimes to stop doing what we have become accustomed to.
Jesus called his disciples to follow him in a way that was radically different to the way that disciples had been trained before. To follow him took courage, joy and wisdom, and we must apply the same to our own church programme and lives.
As we wrestle with coats and wine and wineskins of all ages, we can rejoice knowing that the oldest wine - that which we find in God, is truly the best of all.