Scripture: Luke 5:33-39
When I was born the cold war was already in the fourth quarter. The fear and existential angst that came from the nuclear arms race is not something I ever really experienced, because I have always lived in a world that has had the ability to blow itself up a thousand times over. The existence and theoretical use of nuclear weapons has always been a background part of life, and honestly not something I ever put much thought into. I honestly have no real idea about how the nuclear weapons systems of this country work. Most of my thoughts on that are honestly inspired by TV and movies. I imagine it involves a guy with a briefcase handcuffed to his arm and everything is coordinated through some undisclosed bunker site with large screens and state of the art technology. So I was really surprised to learn the truth. In 2016 a report from the Government Accountability Office shed light on the reality of the US Nuclear program. The nuclear bases, the places that would be responsible for launching missiles, are powered by computer technology from the 1970s and 1980s. As of 2016, using certain key systems, like a launch sequence, requires using 8-inch floppy disks, a computer data format that was obsolete by the time I was born. The computers that run these bases take up entire rooms, not because they are that high powered but because they are that old. Many of our cell phones have more raw computing power than the computer that are responsible for managing the most dangerous weapons ever created. One of the reasons why this has never been upgraded is because it is so old. Maintaining that old of technology is expensive, so 75% of the technology budget is devoted to maintenance and that does not leave enough to develop or install new systems. In the long run an upgraded system would be more cost effective and more efficient. An upgraded system would perform its mission better, but that upgrade requires a larger upfront investment that our department of defense is not willing to make. So instead millions of dollars are essentially wasted to maintain technology that is almost certainly older than everyone who is responsible for using and maintaining it.
Now we can shake our heads and roll our eyes over this. We can chalk it up to the kind of knots of red tape typical of governmental bureaucracy, but we probably should not be too quick to point fingers. The US nuclear program has been slow to make some necessary changes, and churches in general tend to also be a little slow at change. An old joke illustrates this well. The joke starts with a familiar premise: How many Methodists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Change? My great-grandmother Ethel donated that lightbulb! We cannot possibly change it.
The fact that this is an old joke, show that a resistance to change is not a new problem. In fact, it has always been a problem. Jesus himself points this out in this morning’s scripture. In verse 39 Jesus states and no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say “the old is better.” It really be understood that Jesus is saying this with a high level of sarcasm. The old wine in his parable is not really better, but people like what they are familiar with. Even if what they are familiar with is not the most effective or efficient way to fulfill the mission. This morning’s scripture reading is one that reminds us that in order for the kingdom of God to grow, in order for disciples to be made, and in order for the world to be transformed there will be change. That reminder to us is also often a challenge for us.
This scripture begins with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law essentially asking Jesus why his disciples do not act like other disciples. Essentially they are asking Jesus, “Why don’t you do things the way we have always done it?” In response Jesus tells a parable with two parts. What is happening in the first part of the parable is easy to understand. It would make zero sense to buy a new garment and destroy it to patch up an old one. The second part of the parable requires a bit more explanation for us to get the proper context. After all, we do not make it a habit to store wine in goatskins. Part of the process of making wine requires putting it in a dark place that is as airtight as possible. In the ancient Middle East, goat skins were the best resource available for this. One of the reasons why goatskins worked so well is they would stretch some. This was important, because as the wine ferments it creates gas and expands. Using an old wine skin would mean it has already stretched, and it may not have much give left for the new wine to ferment.
So that is what is going on, but Jesus is clearly not talking about wine in this parable. The wine and the wineskins is a metaphor for something greater. In this parable the new wine represents the message of Jesus. It represents the gospel truth that we are in need of a great savior, and that savior is Jesus Christ-sent by God the Father because he so loved the world that whoever believes in his son will not perish but have eternal life. That means the old wine is religion without Christ, it is a checklist of rules. The old wine are meticulous hoops that people must jump through to reach God, but the new wine is God reaching down to us when the Word became flesh. The old wine is legalism and judgement, but the new wine is grace and mercy.
If the wine represents the object and focus of our faith, then the wineskins represents the practice and form of our faith. In this scripture, Jesus was not speaking against the practice of fasting. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus actively encourages fasting. The point Jesus is making is that he represented new way for people to connect with God. Following Jesus is not meant to be a reskin of “how we have always done it”, following Jesus reunites with God, it regenerates our hearts, and makes us new creations in Christ. That requires change and that kind of change will not fit into the way things have always been done. It will require new expressions, new practices, and new forms of worship. The message of Jesus represented new wine and this new wine just could not fit in the old, legalistic practices.
Jesus told this parable to address a specific group of people over a specific issue long ago, but I believe it still has relevance to us today. The scripture and the parable Jesus told in it, may be old. However, the new wine is still new. The message that Jesus saves is never out of date or obsolete. The good news that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, is still news. It is not old and done away with, it is still fresh, it is still exciting, and it still has the power to change lives.
A study was recently done that tried to determine the least religious cities in the United States. For the purpose of this study a city was a place that has a population over 100,000. Indiana has four such places: Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Evansville, and South Bend. Three of those four cities made the list of the top 100 least religious cities in the United States. All that is to say, is there are people in our neck of the woods who need Jesus. There are people like us who have not yet said yes to God’s yes. To all of those people, the gospel message is still like new wine. Jesus is still something they desperately need in their lives, he is the only thing that will fill the hole in their soul, and he is the only thing that will meet their deepest longings. Experiencing Jesus, receiving forgiveness, and having our hearts transformed is always a new experience and it is always very relevant.
The love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ is always exciting and new because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The new wine of Jesus’ parable is still the new wine, the new hope of today. That leaves the wineskins, the way we practice and live out our faith. If we are being honest, some of those wineskins are getting kind of old. Churches, as a whole, have unfortunately earned a reputation of being places where people say “we have never done it that way before.” Those are dangerous words that can do real harm. Those are the words of old wine skins and when we try to fit the new, life changing gospel of Jesus in them, then we run the risk the real chance of our old ideas going bust and spilling the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others.
On this day, I think there are two ways we can consider using new wine skins to fulfill our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. First, we need to be willing to try new things. The message of the church has never changed, but our methods to share that message and connect it with others needs to change. One hundred years ago one of the major ways that this church fulfilled its message and made a difference was through a women’s sewing group called the gleaners. A century ago that was effective, but I doubt it would have the same impact today. The fact that this church has stood in this community for as long as it has, is proof that throughout times the members of the church have valued the message of Jesus more than the methods used to communicate that message.
I am very thankful to you as a congregation for all of the ways big and small, you have supported the ideas, the new wine skins, I have brought you. I am very thankful that it was a rare occurrence for me to hear someone say “we’ve never done that way before.” I so appreciate your willingness to try new things in order to make a real difference, and it is my genuine hope and prayer that as a church you continue to be that open to trying new things. It is my prayer that you keep the main thing the main thing, and that you never get so caught up in how things used to be done that you forget why we are doing them. It is my hope and prayer that you continue to provide proverbial new wineskins to this community so that they may know the new hope that comes from Christ.
On this day I am keenly aware of the second way that this church should consider using new wine skins. I am aware, because today I am the old wineskin. It has been my honor and privilege to serve as your pastor. From the beginning it was my desire to present to you my most authentic self, and I am filled with gratitude that you accepted me as I am. I am humbled that you were willing to trust me and you were willing to follow me. But it is time for new wine skins. I will no longer be your pastor. Pastor Jason will be, and he will be the one to lead you, to teach you, and to comfort you. While I leave here with a heavy heart because I will miss you, I also leave here with confidence. For I am confident where I am going is where God wants me, and I am therefore confident that here is where God wants Pastor Jason. Jason is not me, he will do things differently, and will have different ideas that I never thought of. However, I have confidence that he will be the kind of new wine skin that this church needs to more effectively and efficiently tell this town how much Jesus needs them.
May we all be filled with the hope and joy that can only come from knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. May we be willing to share that knowledge with the broken and hurting world around us. May you be open to doing new things as a church, and may you not cling tightly to the old wine skins. “Five and a half years ago, I stood before your for the first time and I said these words: I sincerely believe that a church of this size can and will transform the world, if we are obedient to following God’s leading. If we GO where God is saying to follow. Starting with this town, I believe that it is possible for God’s grace to break through, for the spirit to move and for the world to be transformed. “
Brothers and sisters in Christ, five years ago I said those in hopes. I repeat them this morning because I still believe them, but I now repeat them with more than just hope. I repeat them with conviction. I believe those words to be true for you, because I lived among you, I have served you, and in some small measure I have led you. As I leave, I want you to know, that I believe in you. I have seen your faith, and I continue to have hope that God will use you to do mighty things.
So Edinburgh United Methodist Church, May the God of all work through to share the death-conquering love of Jesus the Christ. Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit may you bring this community a new hope that makes disciples and transforms it to a more kind and loving place.