No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”
-Luke 5:36-39 (NIV)
Earlier this month, I hit my twenty-third year at the church where I minister. By some measures, that’s not a very long time. I know of guys who have been with their churches for 40, 50 years. Twenty-three years is very nearly half my life, though. It says more about the patience of the church than it does about me, I’m sure. But I’ve been a part of this church longer than I’ve been a part of any other.
Something happens, though, when you’ve been a part of a church for so long. You start to get invested. Invested in the other members and their lives, of course; but also invested in the status quo. You stop noticing things: little things that might be getting in the way of your mission, distracting things that might take people’s eyes off Jesus, secondary things that may have become primary. The peeling paint in the foyer, the unhealthy relationships among some of the members, the misplaced emphases of the teaching coming from your own pulpit — these things can just become part of the backdrop, the setting in which you live. You’re no more conscious of them than you are of the air you breathe. You could no more describe them than a fish could describe the water around him.
It was that kind of problem, it seems, that Jesus was confronting with his parables of old and new. The religious leaders of his day were operating with the stale air of “that’s just how it’s done” all around them. He wanted to open a window for them; they were content to just gasp and puff along. That air, after all, had been good enough for generations before them. Their rules were out of touch, and in fact kept them out of touch with the people who most needed them. They were defending their theology while everyone else around Jesus was seeing the “remarkable things” he was doing and giving praise to God. They were doing what Jesus said in his parable that no one would ever consider doing — sacrificing the new to patch up the old.
I’m guessing Jesus hadn’t been to church lately.
It’s so easy to sacrifice the new to keep the old going just a little longer. Listen, I’ve been the new guy in a church, champing at the bit to change everything. I’m the old guy now — well, older — who might sometimes be too invested in keeping the old limping along. I can tell you which is easier, which requires less of you. I’ve rolled my eyes when people have invoked the status quo, and I’ve been the invoker. I’ve put my shoulder against the brick wall of tradition a few times, and a few times I’ve probably picked up trowel and mortar to shore it up. I have held up the new garment and advocated changing out of the old rags, but I’ve also probably ruined the new trying to create patches for the old out of it.
Once you’re invested, it can be hard to discard the old in favor of the new.
I get it now. If you’re one of the iconoclasts — one of those folks who’s always looking around for an old garment to discard and a new one to take its place — and you’re amazed at the intransigence of those who insist that the old garment just needs a patch or two, well, one of these days — and it’ll happen faster than you imagine — your garment will be old. And maybe you’ll remember me.
But that’s not to say you should shut up. The church needs the iconoclasts. We need the people who will look at the church’s old garments and see them for what they are. When the old guard show up in our polyester leisure suits and white shoes, thinking we look fly, we need people who have the good sense to tell us to please get a new tailor. Please be patient. Please be gentle. But remind us that it doesn’t make sense to keep cannibalizing what should be our future in order to hang on to our past a little longer.
This week I was talking with someone about the projector in our worship space. He was remembering when our church didn’t have air conditioning or a sound system. He wasn't advocating a return to the old days. He had discarded those rags. So, you see — the old guard can change. It might not be easy for us sometimes, and sometimes we might just need to see through the eyes of someone who is a little less tangled up in nostalgia. But we can do it.
See, sometimes in the church we resist throwing out the old because we get afraid of what could be lost. That’s not a bad impulse. Problem is, we follow a Lord who didn’t seem the least worried about that. He went around telling and showing people that in him, God had come near and was welcoming people into his house. What he preached was a new thing. It had its roots in who God had always been and what he had always done. That’s how people should have been able to recognize it. But it was new, in so many ways. New, like new wine. And, as he reminded the old guard, you don’t put new wine in old wineskins. They won’t hold it. The brittle skins will crack, the brittle seams will burst, and the new wine will be lost.
But, see, the church has always had a tendency to confuse the wineskins for the wine. We settle on our buildings, our liturgies, our ministries, our ways of doing things. By virtue of tradition, or preference, or efficacy, or culture, or some combination of those, we choose our wineskins. And, for a while, they hold the wine of the good news of the Kingdom of God very well. And people drink, and their thirst is quenched.
But then those wineskins start to get brittle. Our songs don’t have the same meaning. Our preaching doesn’t connect like it once did. We’re trying to meet needs that no longer exist or respond to questions no one is asking anymore. And God is doing something new. And our old wineskins won’t contain it, and the wine gets lost, and everyone goes thirsty. And, here’s the problem: we defend the wineskins.
The good news is that the wineskins can be replaced. There’s no reason to fear that anyone is rejecting the wine. We just need to find some new skins that will contain the always-new, always-vital good news of Jesus. We just have to stop the knee-jerk reflex of thinking that “old” and “better” are synonyms.
God helping me, I don’t intend to get hung up on the fashions of yesterday. I don’t intend to hoard old, cracked glasses that no longer hold the wine of the gospel. I may be getting old — well, older — but I still want to be a part of the new things God is doing in his church and in his world.
Just give me a minute to say goodbye to those old leisure suits. They were pretty sharp in their day.