New Wineskins

by David Baer, January 10, 2016

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Text: Mark 2:1-22

I want to start this morning with a story that is short on specifics, so it’s probably a legend, but it’s a good story anyway. There was a certain British artillery unit that was having persistent problems with a slow rate of fire—they needed to be able to get their shells off more quickly. A senior army officer came in to investigate:

Each time they went through the firing drill the officer noticed that at the moment the gun was fired one of the team would stand off to the side with his arm extended straight out and with his fist clenched.

The officer asked the purpose of this procedure, but all the men knew was that it was part of the drill.

The officer was curious, so he continued his inquiries around the post. But no one seemed to know the reason for this apparently meaningless gesture.

Finally, a World War I veteran reviewed the gun drill, looked closely at the man with arm extended and fist clenched, and then exclaimed, “Why, of course! He’s holding the horses!”

In the motorized Army, that part of the drill became obsolete, but it was still included in the training exercise.1

This incident may or may not have really happened, but we’ve all seen or been part of groups of people that get caught up in habits or practices that were appropriate and useful at some time in the past, but that no longer work. A member of my family once worked at a summer camp in rural New Hampshire during a summer break from college, and whenever any of the staff proposed trying something new, the camp owners always answered, “We’ve never done it that way before.” The first couple of times, she expected that this introductory statement would be followed by a more reasoned explanation, but she was disappointed—apparently to their way of thinking, “We’ve never done that before,” was a sufficient rebuttal all by itself.

We all get stuck, stuck in habits that are no good for us, stuck in patterns of relating to the people in our lives that bring hurt and disappointment, stuck in dwelling on a past that we can’t change, stuck in thinking that something we did or something that happened to us—whether good or bad—is always going to be the last word on who we are. Sometimes being stuck is a source of pain, and sometimes it’s not. But the fact is that on this side of the judgment day, God’s not finished with any of us, not by a long shot, and so it’s precisely in those places that you and I are stuck that God is going to push us on a journey toward something greater—a journey that is challenging and uncomfortable and confounding, toward a destination that is immeasurably richer and truer than where we are stuck right now.

Jesus encounters all sorts of people who are stuck in today’s gospel lesson. The paralytic is stuck on his mat. He can’t walk. That’s not his fault—sometimes we’re stuck through no fault of our own, but stuck nevertheless. But what the paralytic man does have going for him is a bunch of friends who are absolutely dogged and determined and willing to move heaven and earth, or at least part of the roof of the home where Jesus is teaching, to get their friend to the man they believe can help him.

Jesus is moved by their “faith.” And here I think it’s pretty clear that “faith” doesn’t mean whatever fact they believe about Jesus, but their energy and persistence in bringing their friend to him for help. Jesus is moved, and so he tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven… which is nice, and all, but not really why his friends hoisted him up to the housetop and drilled through a roof.

We shouldn’t get the idea from this that the man did something wrong, or that his paralysis was some kind of punishment. But the paralytic and his friends aren’t the only people present. Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, telling folks that it’s near enough to touch, that God’s will is about to be done on earth the way it is in heaven, and that this is going to change everything. And this change means not only that people can be freed from their outward pain, from disease, but also from the pain that nobody can see—the inward pain of sin that sets them apart from God and other people.

The scribes who have come to hear Jesus don’t believe it. Sin can only be forgiven by God, they say. And God is out there, not here. Forgiveness is possible, but it has to be on God’s terms, through the rituals and procedures outlined in the law of Moses. How dare this upstart rabbi tell a man he’s forgiven just because his friends committed an act of vandalism? Despite what Jesus is saying about everything changing, about God coming near at last, they don’t believe him. They’re stuck in the old way of relating to God, a way that, for all its considerable beauty and grace, has left this paralytic man stuck in his illness and in his sins. The paralytic is stuck because of his disease. The scribes are stuck because of their intractable habits of mind, their failure of imagination and compassion.

So Jesus does them one better by telling the man to stand up, take his mat, and walk, and he does! Everyone is astounded—surely someone with the power to work such healing, such an amazing transformation, must also have the power to forgive sins.

The rest of our reading this morning sees Jesus in confrontation with others who are stuck. Levi, the tax collector, is stuck because of his occupation. He’s a tax collector for the hated Romans, and worse than that. Tax collectors paid themselves a salary by collecting over and above what Rome needed from them. Some of them abused the privilege—human nature being what it is—and so their neighbors hated them all the more for it. Levi is cut off from community with his fellow Jews. He’s on the outside. He’s stuck… until Jesus recruits him and comes home with him for dinner. When word gets out, all the black sheep of the region flock to Levi’s house, and so dinner becomes a gathering of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “undesirables.” When Jesus is challenged to justify the company he keeps, he says, essentially, “They’re the people who need me.” Jesus is always going to choose the hurting outsider over the self-righteous insider.

Again, the religious authorities can’t get their head around the possibility that a true rabbi with a message from God would bypass them, the respectable people who try to do what is right, to spend time with the rogues and ne’er-do-wells at Levi’s house. The tax collectors and “sinners” Jesus ate with were stuck because of their social isolation—some of it deserved, much of it undeserved. The religious authorities are still stuck trying to comprehend a God who cares for the least and the lost.

Those religious leaders press Jesus again, on the way he and his disciples practice their spirituality. We fast, they say, and John’s disciples fast, but you don’t. Jesus answers by making a comparison to a wedding celebration, an event that interrupts and pushes aside the humdrum and routine business of human life, as those who take part in it lose themselves in sheer joy. What it happening here, Jesus says, what God is doing among us right now is a joyful intrusion that makes it unseemly and impossible for me and my disciples to fast. Again, the religious leaders are stuck. They are concentrating all their attention on practices that are beautiful and meaningful, that form the basis of an age-old relationship with God, but so much so that they lose sight of something new and wonderful that is unfolding right in front of them.

To those who are stuck in illness, exclusion, guilt, and sadness, Jesus offers forgiveness and freedom and joy. To those who are stuck in their prejudices, who are living with a cramped and stunted spiritual imagination, Jesus offers challenge and discomfort, but also an invitation to join him in a broader place. The old channels of God’s presence and grace are no longer enough, Jesus says. You can’t take the message about God’s kingdom and patch it onto the same old walk with God. You can’t take the new forgiveness and new healing and new welcome that are flowing abundantly from God’s heart like new wine and bottle it up in old wineskins. God is doing something fundamentally new and astounding, something bigger than our preconceptions and preoccupations. Giving ourselves over to that new thing is going to disturb us and unsettle us, but it’s what we’re going to need if we’re ever going to get unstuck.

Let me circle around to the story I started with, the one about the artillery soldiers holding phantom horses, just because that’s how they’d always done it. Look, we all hold our horses. You and I and everyone relies on routines to get us through the day, because that’s how life works. You can’t think and reason your way through every little action in your day, or you’d never get anything done. But I imagine somewhere God is pressing in on your routines, maybe in a way that makes you a little apprehensive or uncomfortable. Maybe there’s a needy person—in terms of material needs, emotional needs, or otherwise—who has come into your life, and your instinct is to keep your distance. Maybe there’s some kind of opportunity for giving or serving that just keeps coming into your mind, but in all your busy-ness you just don’t think it will fit. Maybe there’s some kind of breach in your past—something that hurt you or someone else—where you need to find healing or be a healer. You know what I mean—all that stuff that, at the end of our life, is going to look much more important than the stuff we spent all of our time on. I want to suggest to you that when you think about these things, maybe Jesus is inviting you to get unstuck.

We talk about New Year’s resolutions usually as opportunities for us to decide, to seize on ways of making change in our lives and in the world. And that’s not a bad thing. But it shouldn’t keep us also from keeping our eyes and our hearts open to the change God is trying to work in us. I don’t know about you, but when I see Jesus forgiving, healing, touching the untouchable and unloved, and when I hear him talk about what he’s doing as a wedding feast that jolts us out of the every day, I get excited. “Hold your horses…” Isn’t that something we say to someone when we’re trying to dampen their passion, their enthusiasm? What might happen to you in this new year if you stop holding the horses that don’t need holding and let the Spirit of Jesus take hold of you instead?

God isn’t only out there. God is here, because Jesus came and not only walked the earth so long ago, but continues to be present through the people who love and trust and follow him. So be open and prayerful, be yielding and vulnerable to the change Jesus wants to work in you. If your life continues to be the same, it can’t accommodate the new wine, the new blessings God wants for you. Be filled, be rich with blessing. Be a new wineskin in this new year. Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Jan Brunvand, The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 2001. Quoted at http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=48;t=000014;p=0. Accessed 1/8/2016.

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