Sunday, March 22, 2009

New Wine: Sermon on Jeremiah 31:1-13, Mark 2:13-22

Tell me the old, old story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory,
Of Jesus and his love.

I’ve noticed something about a lot of the bible passages we read in church on Sunday mornings. Have you noticed that we always seem to be going back to the beginning, back over ground we’ve already covered before? Here we are, and Jesus is, once again, calling someone to be a disciple… today, it’s Levi, a tax collector. I know we’ve heard one of these stories before, and not long ago, a call story. And we hear these call stories every year, in the three-year cycle of readings known as the lectionary. What, do you suppose, is the source of our need to go back to the beginning, to hear, the old, old story again and again? What is it about memory or worship or our own need that brings us back again to familiar stories, like a family gathered together at the kitchen table, turning the pages of a favorite photo album for the hundredth time?

Jesus sees Levi sitting in his tax booth, and Jesus says to him what he always says in these stories: “Follow me.” And, like nearly everyone Jesus calls, Levi immediately gets up and leaves his trade and his source of income without even finding someone to cover for him, without so much as hanging a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door. In the case of Levi, as with so many of the disciples, Jesus has called an outcast. But he’s called a curious kind of outcast, because Levi is rich. Like the well-paid executives of AIG, Levi is comfortably well-off, but not particularly well-liked. That’s because Levi’s job is to extract taxes from his fellow Jews, and pass them along to the Roman oppressors… while, at the same time, taking a nice cut for himself. He would have been seen as a traitor to his people. And Jesus thinks he’s just the disciple needed to round out his inner circle.

Maybe the first lesson we need to learn over and over is that Jesus calls people to be his disciples whom we don’t expect him to call.

Later, Jesus joins Levi at his house. Though our translation says they were sitting at table together, the fact is, they were reclining at table, in the ancient near-eastern fashion for celebratory banquets. Jesus and Levi and Jesus’ disciples and lots of tax collectors and sinners were reclining together at the table. The scene is one of festivity, of intimacy, and of merriment. Jesus and his disciples and tax collectors and sinners.

Maybe the second lesson we need to learn over and over is that if we want to be in Jesus’ company we can expect to be surrounded by sinners. And, in fact, “they” are “us.”

Then Jesus becomes aware that some of the religious elite—the scribes of the Pharisees, those folks who are not outcast but who are really considered the in-crowd of Jesus’ day—they are challenging the presence of the tax collectors and sinners—not to Jesus directly, but to his disciples. “Why?” they ask. “Why would Jesus eat with these people?

Maybe the third lesson we need to learn over and over is that the welcoming ways of Jesus often make the religious authorities squirm, make them uncomfortable. In fact, Jesus often leaves the “good people” scandalized.

Table fellowship was something that was particularly important to the Pharisees. In fact, they were primarily a society for teaching and table fellowship… a kind of continuing religious education/ dinner club.[i] The particularities of table fellowship—the rules and regulations concerning who was welcome at the table of a righteous person and who was not—these were pretty much at the heart of their concerns. And so they want to know: why is Jesus eating with sinners?

Jesus responds by describing himself as a kind of physician. Who needs a house call from the doctor, he reasonably asks, the person who is hale and hearty or the person who has a terrible cough and a 102 degree fever? This is one of those beautiful moments when Jesus manages to disarm his opponents with a kind of compliment that rebounds upon them. You, he insinuates, are so clearly healthy! I will stay with these sick folks. But here comes the rebound: I’m not going with you, he says. Jesus rejects the rules for table fellowship that the Pharisees embrace. As I heard in a sermon not too long ago, every time we draw a circle in which we’re on the inside and someone else is on the outside, we can rest assured that Jesus is going to choose to be on the outside, with those we exclude.

The topic of food continues to be discussed—or lack of food, specifically, fasting. Why, someone asks, why don’t Jesus’ disciples fast… like those followers of John the Baptist? And, I might add, like the Pharisees, who fasted once a week.[ii] Jesus, I like to imagine, puts down the cup of wine from which he has been sipping. He places on the table the knife with which he has been cutting a lovely rich wedge from a honey and fig cake. And then he says something like, Look around you. These are not mourners. This is not a funeral. This is a wedding banquet. How can we fast? Today, it is time for a celebration.

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with images in which God is compared with a bridegroom, and God’s people of Israel are depicted as a bride. Our passage from Jeremiah hints at this:

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people… I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards… the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. ~ Jeremiah 31:1, 3-5

God’s people are depicted here as a blushing bride, ready to make merry at the wedding with the tambourine, ready to partake of the delicious local wine, ready to be “built up”—that is, to have lots of babies. God speaks in the language of a suitor: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have been faithful to you.”

The wedding imagery continues, as Jesus moves on to talk about the old and the new: garments (I think, wedding garments) and wine. In doing so he appeals to conventional wisdom, folk knowledge. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk” [that is, new] “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.” The old and the new, Jesus says, cannot be forced together… new wine will tear an old wineskin. A new patch will tear an old garment. I am going to go out on a limb and say, of all the words of Jesus, perhaps these shake up good church people the most. We tend to infer from what Jesus is saying, that the old must be discarded and the new embraced.

I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. In fact, the way I read these sentences, in one case, Jesus clearly is suggesting we embrace the new… the new wine… and in the other case, he is clearly suggesting we maintain and protect what is old… the cloak, which he doesn’t want to tear. It’s not the newness or the antiquity of something that should be the judge of whether we preserve it. It’s not whether something is new or old that determines if it is good. Rather, it’s the extent to which it helps us to welcome in or to build up the reign of God.

And the reign of God, Jesus tells us, is a celebration. It is a banquet. It is a feast where no one goes hungry and no one is told he or she cannot enter in. I hear you asking, quietly, what about the Pharisees? Truly, I tell you, by their exclusive ideas about who’s in and who’s out, they exclude themselves.

What is it about us that makes us return over and over to the same stories, the same themes in scripture? Is it the way our memory works? Is it the way in which we worship? Is it a matter of our own needs, as fragile and broken human beings? What do you suppose? This morning I’ve highlighted a few items we seem to need to hear over and over again (judging by their prevalence in scripture). The idea that Jesus calls unexpected people to follow him, the idea that he calls sinners, the idea that—oh my!—we are those very selfsame sinners. And the idea that Jesus’ inclusiveness is a challenge to us, a deep, real challenge.

Maybe the final thing that we need to hear over and over is this: Look around you. This is no funeral. This is a wedding banquet. We are the beloved people of God, brought into intimate covenant relationship with Jesus. This is what the “new wine” is about… not so much the “newness,” as the “wine.” Wine, symbol throughout history and scripture of all that is delicious, all that is wholesome, all that lifts the spirits and gladdens the heart. Wine, present at fancy dinners and weddings and last suppers and New Year’s toasts. Wine, reminding us that life as God’s people is, first and foremost, celebration… joy, festivity, merriment! Tambourines! Dancing! Smiles. Laughter. Warm hands extended. This, I believe, is what we need to remember most of all. This is why we tell the old, old, story again and again… so that we’ll finally take this in, so that we’ll finally believe it. Our life together, in Christ, is a celebration. A banquet. An occasion for taking in the new wine of the old, old story, of Jesus and his love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] J. Wilde as quoted in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, 1997), 158.
[ii] Ibid.

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