Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Holding New Wine

By Jordan Sylar

Matthew 9:14-17

“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are ruined, but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Good Questions & Group Knowledge 

I love how this story starts with a good question. There is a genuine curiosity from the disciples of John as they notice Jesus’ disciples doing something different and new. They want to know “why?” If you’ve read a lot of the gospels, you will know that this is refreshing because usually when Jesus is asked a question, the askers do not have great motives. Often, the questions are a legalistic trap from the Pharisees ––  something like “Did you heal someone on the sabbath? Does that not break a law?” Even the disciples themselves ask Jesus self-indulgent questions like, “Who will sit at your right hand?” 

This project is full of questions, but we must make sure they are good, life-giving ones. As the poet David Whyte has said: 

questions elicit answers in their likeness. 

So, you call forth something beautiful by asking a beautiful question.

To move forward beautifully, let us avoid those ugly types of questions: the judgmental questions of the Pharisees and the self-indulgent ones of Jesus’ disciples. Instead, let’s ask sincere questions concerning our community, here in this building and out there in the town of Madison. We will feel the best as individuals when we are curious about the whole. 

Not only that, but we can answer these good questions more accurately and creatively as a community. One of my favorite branches of philosophy is epistemology, and it contains a category called “group knowledge” where the aggregate collection of answers is thought to be more accurate than any individual response. A common way that this is sometimes demonstrated is asking a group to guess the number of marbles in a large jar. Usually, the average answer is the closest to truth than any one person’s guess. 

This is my hope for us, in this project but also a life of faith: that wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we are curious and sincere, asking good questions about the wellbeing of everyone and collaborating to answer them together. 

Answers… Oh My!

That sounds nice, but here is the scary part: what if we find answers? What if something that we love is challenged, changed, or uprooted? Imagine the disorientation that John the Baptist’s disciples felt. If you know the story, they followed a somewhat ascetic man who lived in the wilderness and ate bugs. Supposedly, John was pointing the way to Jesus, but Jesus’ followers did not even fast at all. That is an abrupt and confusing transition for those in the story trying to make sense of it, and we might face something similar in our own reimagining. 

But that’s okay, because when the disorientation comes, we can do two things. First, we can try our best to remain open and listen well… to each other, to new answers, to God. Second, we can give ourselves and each other grace. Any kind of change can be difficult, so we must do things slowly, and together. 

Even though change is scary and uncomfortable, the right kind of change is also exciting. It can feel like a welcomed relief to change something that is no longer working. Change comes in times like our own, when ideas of church and religion are breaking down in the broader culture and there is a deep yearning for authentic spirituality. Change also comes from people like you who are sustaining a thriving religious congregation despite it. 

Perhaps like the disciples of John, we might look around and have questions about what we have been doing. I think what Jesus says to them can help us where we are, too. 

A New Way: Celebrating God’s Presence 

In typical Jesus fashion, God-incarnate responds to a question with a mysterious parable. He says “the wedding attendants cannot mourn while the groom is with them.” If you consider the purpose of fasting, this statement makes sense. It was traditionally a mournful action performed in times of despair, begging God to hear prayers and intervene in the situation. Fasting was the act of seeking God, and they did not need to do it anymore because God was there. 

In an unprecedented and joyous way, God was so close that they could reach out and touch him, but they were just continuing on, still mourning God’s absence. Perhaps this serves as a cautionary tale now about the danger of rote, habitual practices that never ask “why?” 

Considering this, it is possible that there is a way to attend church diligently and sincerely and still live on autopilot and miss God’s presence. I don’t want that for us. Perhaps the world is changing because God is showing up in new ways, and I hope that we do not simply live habitually but instead we pay attention. I want us to develop the communal sensitivity to get in touch with what is actually happening in this moment: what we really need, and how God might be present to meet that need and help us be there for each other. 

New Wine: Giving Room to Expand 

The image I find most striking in this passage is that of the wineskins bursting. Apparently, wine was stored then in leather bags, and new, flexible leather had to be used for newly made wine. The wine needed room to expand as it aged. You can see how old wineskins might burst under the presser of new expansion. 

When I was looking for an image for the bulletin today, I almost used a modernized interpretation that was an image of a wine bottle, frozen mid-shattering from the inside. I didn’t pick it because I thought it felt a little too violent, with shards of glass and red wine exploding from the center. The more I consider it, however, maybe it is not too strong of an image. It is harmful and dangerous to stay where we are if it is no longer what we need. This is something we have learned and heard repeated in social movements: complacency and inaction can be a form of violence against other people and ourselves. Inactivity, or solving new problems with outdated methods, can be dangerous. 

We must take great care to protect precious things, even if it is just from the neglect of outdated methods. You are precious, and for that reason we must take careful care of ourselves and our community. Perhaps like wine, God’s presence is flowing out to us, new each day. May we pay attention and consider the way in which we hold God’s great gifts, including the presence of one another. 

Change –– out there in the word, in here as a church, and in your own heart –– can be scary, but together we can accept it for the gift that it is and find new ways of holding God’s ever-expanding presence with us. 

Image | Photo by Saman Taheri on Unsplash