Series: December 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"Reformed And…The One for Whom We Are Waiting 2 of 3"
18 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?’ 19Jesus 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. 20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
21 ‘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. 22And 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.’
23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ 25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
Reformed And…The One for Whom We Are Waiting 2
Last Sunday I called my parents as is my habit. When my dad answered, I asked what they’d been up to. He responded, “Oh, we went out today and saw a film on blind baseball.”
Great. How’s mom…wait, what? Did you say you saw a film about blind baseball? It turns out an old colleague of his had a family member who played in a blind baseball league – this is a thing – and he thought this deserved some attention, so he produced a documentary on the subject. If you’re wondering how you can play baseball blind, here’s how it works: In traditional baseball someone from one team tries and throw it past a batter from another team who tries to hit it and run the bases scoring points. In blind baseball, the ball is fitted with a beeper, and a sighted player from the batter’s own team pitches, knowing where the batter likes to swing. If there’s a hit, the batter can run either to first base or third and either scores a run.
I would never have guessed blind baseball was possible, but they reformed the game to fit the players and situation. How creative. Throughout Advent, the time that leads to Christmas, we’re trying to better get to know Jesus, this one for whom we are waiting, by exploring particular roles he played in the gospels. Last week we looked at Jesus as exorcist and today we have Jesus as reformer. Look no further than the totality of the metaphor found in today’s passage. Jesus says, “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” (Mk. 2:22). The old skin has no ability to accommodate the expansion of the new wine as it ferments.
With this image, Jesus is telling us, he’s not looking for slightly kinder, slightly more productive, slightly more successful, or even slightly more charitable individuals to fit within the same old system. He’s not looking only for better wine. Jesus is calling for new skin, a new containers and frameworks. New wine will burst the skins if the old skins aren’t replaced with the new. This is what reform looks like and Jesus was a reformer. He was a reformer first of his own tradition and his own society. We know his critiques of his religion and its leaders. Last week we cited Walter Brueggeman who described him as a lived alternative to empire, so we know he called for a skin different than his political state, a kingdom of heaven rather than one of Caesar. He was even a reformer of family structures as he challenged what true kinship was. This is why people who want unchanging family structures have missed the point. Jesus was always expanding the norms of relationship. One of you last week told me of a film about the crucifixion story from the perspective of a Roman soldier. Remember it was a centurion who proclaimed this was God’s son (Mt. 27:54). Add to that tax collectors and those of ill repute, Jesus was always pushing against the confines of society, stretching the old skins which could not hold his kind of love.
There is an art to being a righteous or holy reformer; it’s not indiscriminate iconoclasm. We see that all the time, people who only want to smash or take down, and there is a time for taking apart, disassembling that which no longer serves or even actively does harm. Anger has a place, it can be your signal something is off, but if you don’t transform it you will only want to take apart or destroy. Reform is the vision for what else could be, growing something nurturing and sustaining. Righteous reforming at the core is about love. Jesus loved the tradition from which he came. I always cringe at bumper stickers that say things like love it or leave it, because it sends the message love is about leaving things alone rather than trying to elevate them to higher levels of consciousness. We reform what we love and we do it with love. Reform is an expression of commitment not opposition. Jesus did not display a scorched earth policy so much as an effort of mass composting, where you take what is dead and you return it to the earth to be nutrient for something new to grow that would nourish an ever-expanding circle of people, but particularly the hungriest.
True or righteous reform is also not about remaking something in one own’s image. It’s about cultivating the ground for a higher good. It’s about tapping into something bigger to serve a greater purpose that serves others. When Jesus violates the Sabbath, he’s not just doing it with careless disregard for the law. The law gets a bad reputation particularly in Christian circles. Law provides a container within which people can feel and be safe, of course that’s when the laws are just and the execution of them is likewise just. Laws periodically need to be reformed so that they are more just, and sometimes they need to be broken in the process. The law is not the final good, the laws are there to serve the good and the people.
This is why Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). The Sabbath is good. A mandatory break for the people and the land and the animals is good. However, Jesus finds himself in pursuit of a greater good, feeding people while in the midst of their important work. Notice too, while violating the law, Jesus, who loves his tradition, reminds them of when their shared ancestor, David, did the vary same thing, violating the sabbath by eating food from the altar – he is remaining tethered to a greater good and mission, to a holy precedent, as he steps beyond prescribed bounds. This is not ego.
The Reformed tradition, of which we are a part here, has a wonderful saying. We like to quote it in Latin so we feel smart: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. The phrase was made popular by Karl Barth and may go all the way back to St. Augustine. It means the church—ecclesia, which just means assembly, actually derives from political assembly but that’s another sermon—is reformed and always reforming. Because the verb tenses aren’t quite translatable, it’s more like reformed and always about to be reformed, and we might add, by the power of Holy Spirit. In the tradition of our great reformer Jesus, we understand the work of the church to be reformed and reforming. Fundamentalism, where you take some narrow particular precepts or understanding of what it means to be Christian at one time and place and impose on others forevermore. It denies the calling to be reformers. Things change and that can be good. Every beloved tradition to which you cling, every hymn you love, every ritual you covet, every insight you hold true, religious or otherwise, was at some point new, novel, pushed the boundaries. Even Christmas wasn’t celebrated until the 4thcentury!
Did you ever wonder why Jesus himself never wrote anything down? It’s almost as if he wanted us to have to tell his story over and over. Matthew Fox points out how the fact that a gospel such as John may be filled with quotes of Jesus that he didn’t actually say…and he says that’s a good thing. It’s a sign of the people’s creative aligning with the Spirit. We always have to be reimagining the Christ into our context. That’s the Christian vocation. What does the Christ call for in this moment? We always have to be reforming, changing, growing, in alignment with Spirit, discerned in community.
If we’re not ready to be reformers, we run the risk of becoming about the opposite of what we set out to be. A number of years ago, the church where my spouse and I both served decided to take part of its mission statement as a theme for the year. The phrase was, “We welcome all who would follow Christ.” My spouse, the one with the most institutional memory, and the one with the most interfaith experience, raised a concern. The context in which that phrase was included in the mission statement was when the denomination was deeply divided over LGBTQ matters. That church had been on the forefront of inclusion, and so with that statement what it was trying to say was “We don’t care about how you love, your sexual orientation. If you want to follow Christ, you’re welcome here.” It was included as a statement of inclusion born out of an understanding of who the Christ called them to be. But, lifted out of that context and put on a placard out front of a church building that often hosted Jews, Muslims, those of other faiths and the interfaith council, the phrase, “We welcome all who would follow Christ” runs the risk of sending the opposite message, that we only welcome those who follow Christ. It becomes a statement of exclusion, breaking with the spirit of Christ.
It’s always about staying in touch with Christ. Reform is always at the same time reaching backward, back to our source, and forward, forward to our new and unfolding context, led by the Spirit. It’s a bridge. An article about this the denomination put out states, “Our Reformed motto, rightly understood…does not bless either preservation for preservation’s sake or change for change’s sake.” Preserve what is essence. Change forms that no longer serve. Blind baseball is novel, creative, different than traditional baseball, and yet it is recognizably still baseball!
To follow Jesus is not just to be the best wine, though it’s good to take on the flavor of God’s kingdom, being good where you are. It’s to be the kind of good that ferments and foments something so good that it bursts the skins or require the acquiring of new skins.
The one for whom we are waiting loved the world so much he dared to want to improve it, listening for God’s leading and considering others wellbeing, and we should too.Amen.