Change: It’s a Good Thing

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

7/20/08

 

Matthew 9:14-17

14Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests 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. 16No 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. 17Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

 

This has been a busy week for Sonya and me.  We closed on our home in Staunton last Friday, the 11th.  Since then we have spent late nights painting rooms and cupboards, packing boxes and moving them South on 81, and loading a large truck to transplant all of our possessions from Harrisonburg to Staunton.  Then we started unpacking all of those trucks and boxes yesterday.  We are beginning a new life here in Staunton.

            We have enjoyed being in the city, sitting on our front porch, sipping iced tea.  We moved into a house that has been on the market for 18 months, and it has sat empty most of that time.  So the neighbors have been excited to see that the house is now occupied.  Just the other night, as we were sitting outside with a couple of you, a neighbor was riding his bike by and he noticed that “new” people were in the house on Springhill Rd.  So he stopped by to say hello.  We have received a number of friendly waves and introductions.  My next-door neighbor even brought me over ice cream one day because she thought I had been working too hard in the hot weather.

            All of this is to say that I am excited to be living in the city of Staunton.  I think this just might work.  It takes me all of five minutes to drive to the church and Sonya knocks off about 25 miles from her commute to work.  We are a block and a half away from the park and we hope to take in a lot of the free concerts and events.  Maybe they will let me on that train sometime.  On top of all of this, we are now only minutes away from many of your homes.  So what advantage do I see in living in Staunton?  We are now living, working, worshipping, and serving in one community.  I feel we are going to be building relationships with many people in this city.  And now our religious lives and our social lives don’t have to be separate.  We are ready for this city, and I think that this city is ready for us.

            Our scripture for this morning has a lot to do with changes as well.  But it isn’t a new house that Jesus is talking about, but a new movement; a movement that would later be called Christianity.  Our scripture begins with John the Baptist’s disciples approaching Jesus and asking him why his disciples do not observe the fasting rituals of the Jewish community.  They fast, the Pharisees fast, it seems like the thing to do.  All of the “religious” people are fasting.  So why don’t Jesus and his disciples fast?

            Now we can’t say for sure what fasting ritual Jesus and his disciple were not adhering to, but it is clear that they were not doing something that was expected of them.  And Jesus’ reply is that a wedding guest cannot mourn as long as a groom is with them.  He uses the metaphor of a wedding, where he, Jesus, is the groom.  This is a metaphor that Jesus uses a number of times in the New Testament.  He is the groom to be married to the people who follow him, who we might call the church.  They were in a covenanted relationship with one another, much like a husband and a wife.  And there was much reason to celebrate.  So why mourn while they should be celebrating?  This was a party.  There would be plenty of time to mourn in the future.  When Jesus mentions that there will be a time when the bridegroom is taken from the people and that they will mourn, he is obviously telling the people about his coming death.  And when he is taken away from the people, then they will mourn and fast.  But until then, it is time to enjoy life.

            But Jesus doesn’t stick with this subject for long.  He is ready to move off the subject of fasting and move on to something more important; his ministry and purpose on earth.  Jesus goes from one metaphor to another, telling how nobody sews a piece of unshrunk cloth to an old garment.  Because if you do, when you wash the patched garment, the unshrunk patch will shrink and the previously shrunk garment will not shrink.  So the new patch will tear away from the material that it was intended to patch.  And what happens to the old garment?  It is torn worse!  The very thing that was intended to fix the problem is now making it worse.

            Then continuing with this old and new motif, Jesus says that you don’t put new wine into old wineskins.  Because if you do, the wineskins will burst and the wine will be lost.  See in Jesus’ day, after grapes were squished into juice, the juice was stored in animal skins that were sewed up on the sides and allowed to ferment to preserve the juice.  They couldn’t can or freeze the juice, so they kept it long term in skins, fermented to preserve the juice (and they probably didn’t mind the alcohol).

            But when we allow something to ferment, it produces carbon dioxide.  And this excess gas has to go somewhere, so it builds up pressure in the skins.  Eventually, after enough pressure builds, the animal skins are stretched to accommodate the built up gas pressure.  However, if an old skin is used to hold the wine, it cannot stretch anymore.  It has reached its stretching threshold.  So what happens?  It explodes like an over-inflated balloon.

            Now the thing about Jesus and his metaphors is that he doesn’t always explain them.  And this confused and frustrated people in Jesus’ day just as much as it confuses and frustrates people today.  People today might read this and get frustrated thinking, “why doesn’t he ever tell us what he means?”  But I think it is ingenious, because by not prescribing an interpretation of his parables and metaphors, Jesus prevents us from looking at these parables as only referring to one thing.  Instead, they can be applied (correctly and incorrectly) in many different ways.

            In this instance, I believe that Jesus is saying that the message that he is bringing is not simply an add-on to the lives that the Jews were currently living.  He was not bringing a new law to add to the other laws, like fasting laws.  To do so would be like sewing a new piece of cloth on an old garment.  He wasn’t bringing a new law, but a new way of life.  A life grounded in the Jewish traditions, but so much more.  I am not saying that Jesus came to start a new religion, but to change the lives of Jewish people (see John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited http://www.amazon.com/Jewish-Christian-Schism-Revisited-Radical-Traditions/dp/0802813623).

            One thing that I have had to learn as we have moved into our new house is that there are certain things that require a little bit of time to work out the details.  For instance, when our place was uninhabited for all of that time, the previous owners didn’t want to pay as much for their utility bills.  So they turned their water heater off.  So when we started moving in, we didn’t have any hot water.

            Then as we planned to spend our first night here on Tuesday, Sonya reminded me to turn on the water heater so that she could have a hot shower in the morning before work.  I forgot to do that; she had a cold shower the next morning.  So one of the first lessons that I have learned since our move is that if you want results, sometimes you have to actually turn the knob to get something started.

So as I walk through the streets of Staunton, I can probably assume that a large number of the people that I come up to do not belong to or attend a church on a regular basis.  This isn’t to say that they don’t believe in God.  I bet most of these non-church goers believe in God in some way.  But there are so many people that have become disinterested in church because of the false piety, the overly simplified spirituality, and the failed fruits tests of evangelical Christianity in the United States.  Essentially, I believe that these people have lost their faith in the church, not their faith in God.

            I think that is one of the major reasons why Christianity seems to be in such a decline in the United States today.  Because we don’t see lives being changed when people become Christians.  And in part, I blame this on how we “sell” Christianity today.  We tell people that they are sinners, and that is true.  Nobody I know would say that they never make any mistakes.  We are not perfect, and we know it.  But then we tell them that they don’t have to change.  There is nothing that we can do, we are all sinners, right?  All they have to do is say the sinner’s prayer and then they are set for life.  That is all that it takes.  So what do these people do?  They say “Sure, I can do that.”  They pray and then they keep on sinning.  Christianity becomes an add-on, something that you just add to your current life and expect it will be better.  But that isn’t the way it works.  You don’t become a Christian, pray that God improves your marriage, and then keep cheating on your spouse.  You don’t pray that God delivers you from alcoholism and then keep going to the bars every night.  We have responsibilities as Christians.  Responsibilities for living our lives as Christ lived his while helping others to find this way as well.

            Jesus said that you don’t sew a new piece of unshrunken cloth on an old garment.  Things are made worse if you do.  And when Christianity becomes just an add-on to your current life rather than being an entire change in lifestyle, we are putting a new piece of cloth on an old garment.  It just makes things worse.  And non-Christians see this and they are turned off by Christianity.

Staunton has become new wine skins for us.  This is where we live; we are contained by this city.  And I believe we must become new wine for the city.  And by we, I mean us, Staunton Mennonite Church.  We are new wine for this new wine skin that we find ourselves in.  We are stewards of a message that I believe this city is hungry for.  For almost 500 years Anabaptists have emphasized what is often called Radical Discipleship, following not only Jesus’ teachings, but following him in his actions as well.  Anabaptists refused to accept cheap grace, but instead were willing to pay the ultimate price for the grace of God; they were willing to lay down their life for Jesus Christ.

            And this radical discipleship, this following Jesus in word and deed is something that we still see today in the Mennonite Church.  Christianity isn’t just some add-on to our current lives.  It isn’t just some piece of cloth that we add on to a garment to try to cover a vacancy or a hole in our lives.  Christianity is a new way of life.  It is a new life, a new beginning.  And I believe that the Anabaptist message and the emphasis on Radical Discipleship is the new wine that this city needs.

            I think that the best thing we can do is to be exactly what those outside of the church don’t expect the church to be.  We need to be people living as a part of the Kingdom of God here on earth.  We need to practice what we preach.  We need to turn the other cheek, we need to offer forgiveness, even when an apology is not first offered.  We need to pray for peace and work for peace.  We need to live first as citizens of the Kingdom of God, making sure that others know that we have no other priority, no greater allegiance, and no stronger conviction than our priority, allegiance, and convictions for the Kingdom of God.  Christianity isn’t just an add-on.  It is a way of life.

            In a world obsessed with buying, money, and power, we have a message of simplicity in the Mennonite Church.  Why buy new what you can buy used?  That’s why Mennonites love thrift shops.  Jesus was a poor, homeless man.  It is confusing when non-Christians see so many Christians buying million dollar houses with guest quarters that sit empty most of the time while our brothers and sisters down the street have nothing to eat or perhaps even a place to sleep.  Jesus was a man of much love, much compassion, and much joy.  But he wasn’t a man of many possessions.  If we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, then we need to be followers of Jesus Christ.  The simplicity of the Mennonite tradition is appealing to those in the city of Staunton looking to escape the traps and lies of consumerism.  As Stauntonians find that you cannot buy happiness, they will appreciate Jesus’ message of simply living so that others might simply live.  Christianity isn’t just an add-on.  It is a way of life.

            We have a war that has been going on now for over five years.  There have been over 4,000 American military deaths and over 1 million Iraqi deaths due to this war.  And I believe that many Americans are tired of this fighting in a war we do not understand.  Then we find people like the Anabaptist Ron Sider who started Christian Peacemaker Teams as an alternative to fighting, instead working as Jesus would to reconcile people’s differences.  Christian Peacemaker Teams has had a ministry set up in Iraq since October of 2002, six months before the war on terror began.  These peace workers are trying to find ways to fight terror, build relationships, and eliminate conflict without the unnecessary loss of lives.  And just as soldiers are willing to lay down their lives in battle, Christian Peacemakers are willing to lay down their lives for Christ.  I think this is appealing to the people of Staunton, and to the people of the world.  People are starting to take notice of what Mennonites have been doing for hundreds of years.  Because Christianity cannot just be an add-on.  It is a way of life.

            So we are back in our new house now in Staunton, the day of my wife’s cold shower.  I turned on the water heater, and I intended to get cleaned up myself that evening.  But even after a couple of hours, the water was still pretty cold.  I hadn’t turned up the temperature enough.  I had to turn up the temperature on the water heater a few times until I got it where I wanted it to be.  This just goes to show that even after you get things started, they might need adjustment.  It might even require constant adjustment.

            In May we celebrated our 50th anniversary here at Staunton Mennonite Church.  So there has been an Anabaptist witness here in Staunton for 50 years.  There are some here that are cradle Mennonites, meaning you have never been anything but Mennonite and never really known any other denomination.  And as I said earlier, Anabaptism traces back to the 16th century.  This isn’t just something new to most of us.

            But it is new to many others.  If there are 30,000 people in the city of Staunton, and only 40 people here today, the message of Radical Discipleship is going to be new to 29,960 people.  For these 29,960 people, we have a message that is new wine to them.  And like the water heater in our new home, we need to continue to adjust our method of sharing this message with the people around us.

            The people of Staunton are hungry for the message that we have to share with them.  We have new wine for the new wineskins of Staunton.  For the many people that have not given up on God, but have given up on the church for whatever reason, we have a message.  Christ does change lives.  I hope that we can show people with the way we love them that Christianity is not simply an add-on to their lives, it is an entirely new way of life.   

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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