"THINGS OLD AND THINGS NEW"
Jeremiah 31:31-34 October 26, 1997
Mark 2:15-22; Matthew 13:51-52 Byron C. Bangert
This past summer the quarterly magazine of my undergraduate college arrived in the mail with a retrospective article on the recently graduated class of 1997. I was particularly struck by the way in which the article began: "When the class of 1997 began their studies at Grinnell four short years ago, the world had never heard of the chess champion Deep Blue or a sheep named Dolly. The term NAFTA meant nothing to most Americans. No one had ever heard of the comet Hale-Bopp. Richard Nixon was still alive. So was Jackie Kennedy Onassis. And there were 60 million fewer people in the world" [THE GRINNELL MAGAZINE, Summer 1997, p. 15].
The magnitude and pace of change in our world can be astounding. This fall our younger son entered college as a member of the class of 2001, the first class that will graduate in the new millennium. [The new century and the new millennium do not actually begin until the year 2001, though you can bet they will be celebrated in the year 2000]. I wonder what further changes will have been wrought by the time our Nathan receives his college diploma. Recently I came across another list of circumstances that have marked the lives of the current college generation. This is a generation with no memory of a time before MTV. Their world has always included AIDS. Many of them are probably unacquainted with how to use a vinyl record album, or an 8-track tape. Whereas my generation remembers the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the single most comparable event in the lives of the current generation was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. We live in a profoundly changing world.
As a college student I can remember being very ambivalent about change. It often seemed like too much was happening too fast. I often felt like my generation was too willing to reject the values of the past in the headlong pursuit of something new. It sometimes seemed like all they wanted was change for change's sake. There was a British musical that came out about that time back then with a title that captured my feelings rather well: "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!" Nowadays my feelings are quite different. I don't want to get off any more, but I would appreciate more of a breather from time to time. My guess is that growing up in the 60s has largely inured me to change.
The fact is, change is one of the most dependable constants of our lives. You can always count on change! Moreover, I think our culture tends to look on change in a largely positive and favorable light. We are people who go in for the new. Think about what it is that we tend to associate with the "new": "new and improved"; fresh and clean; faster; safer; more effective; more efficient; utilizing the latest technology; up-to-date; in short, better. "Old," on the other hand, tends to suggest out-of-date, worn out, less effective or efficient, dangerous, obsolescent, not so good. Just how offensive was that scavenger hunt list compiled by the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity boys can be seen from the fact that it included an item regarding an "old person," with the parenthetical notation, "(50+)". Sometimes, of course, "new" means untested, inexperienced, without a clue, and sometimes "old" means seasoned, classic, having stood the test of time. But generally our preferences seem to run to the new rather than the old.
Except perhaps when it comes to something like religion. I wouldn't say that we want our religion to be absolutely unchanging. There is room for innovation here and there. But there is also a strong desire for the familiar. There is a deep appreciation for the ancient, the tested, the tried and true. Stability and continuity are values that many religious people espouse. Historically, religions tend to be conservative forces in society. Less often they become vehicles of social change. In the opening hymn this morning, we sang in praise of God, "Established is Your law, And changeless it shall stand, . . . The first, the last, beyond all thought, And still the same!" We do not want a God who is changeable, but One we can count upon. And we do not seem to want a religion that emphasizes change either.
The really driving forces for most change in our world, I believe, are actually capitalism and technology. Technology in the service of economic pursuits accounts for most of the new things in our world. These material changes and the changing economic arrangements that continue to produce them account for much of the dynamic and change in our social and political relationships and culture as well. Like it or not, however, religion and the church can hardly escape this world of change. As social and cultural values shift and everyday practices change, religious life must also change. Moreover, Christianity also possesses its own dynamic for change. The dynamic within Christianity does not center upon the alteration in the material circumstances of our lives, however, but upon the transformation of our relationships with others and within our society.
This past week the following headline appeared in the local newspaper: "Ordination of women 'setback' to church relations" [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, October 24, 1997, p. A7]. In many ways this headline reflects the sorts of tensions and conflicts that exist within Christianity today. The story was actually about relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, and Pope John Paul II's observation that the Church of England's 1992 decision to ordain women has complicated the Pope's efforts to bring Protestants and Catholics together. Those of us in churches that have been ordaining women for several decades now hardly think of this as a new thing, but in the long history of the Church it certainly is. On this side of that transition we wonder why it took so long for our churches to see this light. We may also wonder how the Pope can continue to claim that God does not call women to the priesthood. Such changes, obviously, do not come easy. They may not come even after the arguments against them--arguments such as the maleness of Jesus and his disciples--no longer seem to carry much weight. But perhaps the more important and surprising fact is that, despite 1900 years of male dominance and a tradition of ordaining males only, many churches have come to the conclusion that God does call women to ordained leadership in the church.
The story is told of a Jewish father who was troubled by the way his son turned out. He went to see his rabbi about it.
"I brought him up in the faith, gave him a very expensive bar mitzvah, it cost me a fortune to educate him. Then he tells me last week he has decided to be a Christian. Rabbi, where did I go wrong?"
"Funny you should come to me," said the rabbi. "Like you, I too brought my boy up in the faith, put him through University, cost me a fortune. Then one day he too tells me he has decided to become a Christian."
"What did you do?" asked the father.
"I turned to God for the answer," replied the rabbi.
"And what did God say?" pressed the father.
"God said, 'Funny you should come to me . . .'"
Christianity certain came to be regarded, by both Christians and Jews, as something different from what had gone before, something new. The ancient prophet had declared that the LORD would make a new covenant with the people of Israel and of Judah, not like the Mosaic covenant that had been made at the time of the exodus from Egypt, a covenant that had been broken. The new covenant would be written upon human hearts. Christians came to regard this new covenant as a new relationship with God, established through Jesus the Christ. The authoritative witness to this new covenant was the body of writings that came to be called the New Testament, in contradistinction to the scriptures that bore witness to the prior covenant, and were called the Old Testament. But what was most important about this new covenant, this new way of understanding the relationship between God and God's people, was the ministry of Jesus himself.
Think about how difficult it sometimes is for us to deal with change, especially in our religious life. Then consider how it must have been for the religious leaders of Jesus' day. Here was this man who presented himself as a religious teacher and healer, yet he consorted with tax collectors and other so-called sinners. When questioned about his practice, Jesus made no apology, but rejoined that his ministry was to those who had special need of him. It was not only the company Jesus kept that seemed disturbing, however. It was also the way he went about his ministry. Even the disciples of John the Baptist could not understand why Jesus and his disciples did not fast. They not only fraternized with persons of questionable character, they seemed to have abandoned some of the traditional pieties and practices of the faith.
The early Christians clearly understood all this as a sign of something different, something new. In the following verses Jesus draws upon what were probably familiar proverbial sayings: "No one sew 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." What is the point? The point is that the new is not simply a patch on the old, it is not simply a container for the old. To patch an old garment, one needs an old patch, a piece of cloth already shrunk. To hold new wine, one needs new wineskins, flexible enough to carry the fermenting wine. And the point is that in Jesus' ministry there is something definitely new, not just a patch on the old. What Jesus offers cannot be contained by the traditional and ancient forms. These verses are not a repudiation of the old. They are, however, an insistence upon the new as something that cannot simply be accommodated to the old. It must have its own forms, its own place, its own integrity, so that it does not simply become part of the old but is recognized to belong to the new.
In retrospect, we Christians have no qualms about affirming the new that became possible in the world through Jesus the Christ. We celebrate our new covenant, our New Testament, our new life in Christ. But it is one thing to celebrate what once was new yet is now taken for granted in our lives. It is another thing to contemplate the new that continues to present itself to us in an ever-changing world. We should not think that the form and shape of what it means to be a Christian has been settled for all time. We should not think that we have already arrived, all dressed up in our Sunday best--but with no place to go!
Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary was quoted in Friday's newspaper on the subject of working for a better world. "I don't expect any one generation to solve the world's serious problems," said Travers. "Every generation has an obligation to work on it. . . . The work is never done. You paint your house, but you know you're going to have to paint it again. I feel that way about human rights issues. You just can't work on it one day. You could say, well it's someone else's turn. But it's always your turn." [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, October 24, 1997, D1, D2]
The same is true of the Christian life and the Christian community. We are always in the process of changing. Each generation has its own particular challenges to face, and all of us as individuals are continually confronted with the need work out our faith in new and changing circumstances. The story is told of a long-time member of a church who scolded the new pastor for her radical new ideas and changes. "Reverend," she trumpeted, "if God were alive today, He would be shocked at the changes in this church." But of course it is a living God whom we serve. It is not an easy challenge, but it is a necessary part of our life before God, to learn how to live with the old and the new.
In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew relates a number of the parables of Jesus, parables that speak of familiar events but that call for a new and different understanding of our relationship with God. Then Matthew poses this question from Jesus: "Have you understood all this?" The disciples say "yes", and then Jesus responds, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
The treasure contains the new as well as the old. The one who is "trained for the kingdom of heaven"--the one who is able to become a member and full participant in this new reality of the commonwealth of God--is one who knows what to grasp of the new as well as what to keep of the old.
The metaphor suggests to me that life before God is always a matter of keeping together what is valuable of both old and new. Not all of the old! and not all of the new! But the best of the old, and the best of the new. The religious life is hardly a matter of simply maintaining an ancient set of practices and formulas and traditions. Nor is it the sort of life you make up as you go along. It is a life that calls for continual transformation in our relationships with others, as well as a fidelity to values, purposes, and ideals that are embodied in practices and traditions and teachings that have been handed down to us. It is always a matter of judgment, of discernment, of faithful seeking, to find ways in which to cherish and treasure what is of value in both the old and the new.
Change is a constant in our world, but it does not always come easy. It usually comes much easier with respect to things than with respect to relationships. It usually comes easier with respect to material circumstances than with respect to the values and practices by which we order our lives in community with others. But it is precisely at this point, in terms of our relationships and our practices as a community, that Christianity presents us with the compelling vision of Jesus the Christ. In keeping with his vision, we understand that life before God is never a completed task, but an on-going challenge. The comfort and the security of the religious life are real, but they are not the end and purpose of our calling. The ancient verities and long-standing traditions are to be cherished, perhaps even honored, but they are not to be idolized.
There is something deficient in our religious faith and practice if closes us off from new relationships, if it hardens our hearts toward those who are at the periphery of our community, or if it teaches us that we already have all the answers. There is something right about our religious faith and practice if it nurtures us in a life of continual transformation, and if it cultivates in us a taste for new wine. AMEN.