St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Let the New Be New”
Collect: O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
Putting the new onto the old rarely works. Jesus talks about it with new patches on old cloaks. Once the new patch shrinks it will pull away from the already shrunk cloth. He speaks of it with new wine, fermenting. You put the juice in with the yeast into a leather bladder or bag sealing it, and the yeast eats the sugars converting it into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gases cause the wineskin to expand, stretching the leather. If you pour new wine into already stretched out leather it will burst and you will lose everything. When starting fresh, start fresh.
Levi was like that. He had had to work to get his position as a tax collector, bribing all the right people, and swindling others to make enough to pay off the bribes. It was a lucrative, but expensive trade. Jesus did not say, “Add some of my teachings, and stir.” What he did say is “Follow me.” It requires one to get up, leave what was behind to follow him.
But the call to leave things behind was not just for Levi’s ease. Jesus knew people. It is almost impossible to not follow old scripts. People were not willing to give Levi, or most people, the benefit of the doubt. Even at the dinner they held that night (remember Levi was well off), Levi had invited his friends, “tax collectors and sinners,” to come and hear the teachings of this remarkable rabbi and his disciples. The “judginess” came out quickly. They judge Jesus for the company he keeps. It is human nature, as old as time. As I said on Sunday, we choose those with whom we are close, and those with whom we are not. Look who Jesus chose.
My collar gets in the way of a lot of people getting to know me. When someone is acting normal around me, and they find out I am a minister it is funny and sad sometimes how they shift and begin to act differently. This slip of a curse word now requires an apology once they know. It is awkward for both of us. I am a sinner who found a way out of my cycle, am still finding a way out of of some of my cycles, and like Levi I want EVERYONE to try what I have found. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” declares Psalm 34:8. We were at a restaurant the other day and I was surprised and delighted by something I ordered. I handed around forks with a sample around the table. “You gotta try this!” The girls did. God is like that, too. I have found a sense of peace and grace and love that I cannot put into words. And that excitement and exuberance bubbles up, like new wine in new skins.
In the last few days, as we have been unpacking and settling in the rectory, I have been very intentional about doing some practices and disciplines I have started and stopped or long wanted to adopt. They always came with stops and starts, but not that we have a radical reorientation in our lives, I trust and hope that this will now be more and more possible and sustaining. It has so far, thanks be to God.
“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” We need to let the new be new, and leave behind what holds us back. Amen